Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun in a stunning performance

SOMM Recordings is releasing a fascinating album (SOMMCXD76) featuring two late-19th-century Romantic Piano Concertos: the familiar Fifth Piano Concerto in F major, “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the unfamiliar yet enormously impressive G minor Piano Concerto, Op.10 by Saint-Saëns contemporary, virtuoso pianist, composer, and personal friend, the Brazilian Henrique Oswald, whose Piano Concerto was composed before Saint-Saëns’ Fifth.

Both concerti are replete with mind-boggling technical hurdles which the formidable Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun elegantly tosses off and then balances with passages of exquisite lyricism in a stunning performance that also boasts the solid support of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra superbly led by Dutch maestro Jac Van Steen. The production and engineering are both vintage SOMM.

A rare treat – Brazilian composer Alberto Nepomuceno’ four-movement Suite Antiga is included in the album, affording the listener the opportunity to enjoy a 19th century Brazilian take on an 18th Century European Baroque construct played with utmost delicacy by a major pianistic talent.

Rafael de Acha

Divine Liturgy

From DELOS, a new release: Divine Liturgy by the composer Komitas, offers a rare sampling of the liturgical music of the Armenian people.

The hour-long work – performed in this recording by the superb Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Klava – introduces the listener to the hauntingly exotic music of the 19th century priest and multi-talented musician Soghomon Soghomonian, known in his country by his given priestly name of Vardapet Komitas.

Widely regarded as a pillar of Armenian music and revered by his people as a national hero, Komitas survived the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire only to tragically die in a Paris mental hospital.

Komitas composed music imbued with Eastern melody, intriguing harmonies, and complex counterpoint. His uncanny gift for exploring how choral singing can induce a state of deep spiritual calm eventually conducive to reflection and religious ecstasy is present in this one of a kind album, beautifully produced, engineered and annotated by DELOS.

Originally created for an all-male choir, this recording arranged for a mixed choir will deservedly begin to divulge the glories of this music from the remote Republic of Armenia to a wider audience than the congregation of faithful for which it was originally conceived.

Rafael de Acha

WHAT MY MUSICAL FRIENDS ARE DOING DURING THE PANDEMIC

Marie-France Lefebvre, Pianist, Professor of Opera/Coaching 

First: the obvious- I was at the Met working on Werther with Yannick Nézer-Séguin, Joyce Di Donato and Piotr Beczala when all stopped and closed… but everyone’s mind was getting absorbed with this virus. Maybe we were making the most intense music ever? Maybe it was more intense because of the stress/tension around the strangeness of Covid-19?

I flew home as soon as the MET closed (announced in the AM of March 12, I flew home in the evening of March 12). Then it was surreal: both my teenagers were home. Arianna was on Spring break from OSU, just stayed home and finished her sophomore year online. Daniel’s last in person day at Walnut Hills for his 7th grade was that day I came home, March 12! They both finished very well. It was easier on Arianna because she is 19, harder on a 13 year old boy.

I resumed teaching/coaching online on March 26. That was a very new adventure: how to make this work? Mostly, we spent LOTS of time working on languages/texts…

Then Cincinnati Opera cancelled: I was to work on Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Castor and Patience. Then we started to try and figure out what we could do at CCM (still in flux).

The larger deeper effect of it all, is that for me, I have realized I don’t want to live at the pace I had established sort of naturally over the years. I LOVE Opera, singers, pianists, music. BUT, life is also tremendously important to me, and that involves my children of course, my siblings in Canada, some very dear friends, and time to read, breathe, cook more, sleep (oh that is a wonderful discovery!), and think more.

I am not sure how it will all be after covid-19, how I will be, my children, my siblings, but I know we will be different. The full impact may take time to be fully visible and perceived.

I said when all this began that the world was screaming at us, trying to find a way to be heard, nature, quality of relationships, pace. The world had been trying to get our attention in vain, and found the only way we would pay attention was this very extreme one. We MUST slow down, fly, drive, travel less frequently, take care of the environment and take care of each other.

That initial feeling has not left me. All the race issues that have finally come up in a very necessary way are part of many things that need our attention. If WE are wise, listen, improve, slow down, care for all around us, there is hope for a much better world for our children.

Music is my (and many colleagues) way of expressing my thoughts, my beliefs, and it will only carry more meaning than ever when the world reopens. We need to find ways to make the message (in music) can be heard by all.

I cannot wait to return to Music Hall and hear CSO! The last concerts I heard this Spring were the Ravel/Saint-Saens one with L’enfant and Jean-Yves Thibaudet here, and the very last one was NY Philharmonic with Maestro Langrée… the program was all amazing, but I will NEVER forget his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. It was extraordinary!

I cannot wait to see and hear a LIVE OPERA again

Mining for musical gold

Available online for purchase or streaming on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, Deezer, and Google Play) and for physical purchase from  www.brilliantclassics.com MUSIC FOR VIOLIN AND VIOLA features two singularly talented artists.

Playing the music of Spohr, Halvorsen, Bruch, Manuel María Ponce, and Mozart, Italian violinist Davide Alogna and Mexican violist José Adolfo Alejo are joined by the Mexican ensemble Camerata de Coahuila, led by Ramón Shade.

This album brings together two superb instrumentalists who set out to investigate the abundant yet rarely explored duo repertoire for their instruments.

The results are splendid.

Seven works, among them Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Louis Spohr’s Grand Duo, Max Bruch’s Double Concerto, and Halvorsen’s Passacaglia on a theme by Handel occupy multiple tracks, each worthy of attention.

Davide Alogna and José Adolfo Alejo together mine for musical gold throughout the entire program, playing elegantly, stylishly eliciting multiple colors from music written over two centuries, and all the while negotiating technical hurdles without any trouble.

The Mexican ensemble Camerata de Coahuila, led by Ramón Shade provides the two soloists peerless support in the grandly Romantic Double Concerto of Max Bruch.

The recording is perfectly engineered by Brilliant Classics.  

We look forward to more from these two artists.

OTHERWORDLY MUSIC

When I first heard a work by the late American composer Christopher Rouse – a performance of his symphony no. 6, his last – I wrote “… the now somber, now nervous, now agitated, now elegiac tone says with rare profoundness what mere words cannot begin to convey. In four movements, the sections of Rouse’s slow-fast-fast-slow structure segue into each other episodically — moments of reflective stasis contrast with blunt agitation, evoking life’s vicissitudes. Massive tone clusters from the large brass section, augmented by startling percussive outbursts, are suddenly juxtaposed with passages of eerie near stillness underpinned by jittery activity in the lower strings. Cantabile passages and peaceful soli for woodwinds alternate with massive statements from the amassed orchestra.”

Heaven forbid I should be taken to imply that Rouse repeats himself as I repeat my year-old words in the context of this review. On the contrary, this composer’s gift for finding unpredictable sounds from instruments often taken for granted thanks to his uncanny genius for orchestrating is more than ever before present in this remarkable performance of three works, including the impressive Symphony No. 5 by Christopher Rouse with the enormously gifted Giancarlo Guerrero leading the superb Nashville Symphony Orchestra issued by Naxos.

Supplica, an inspired composition brief in duration, serenely beautiful, leaning towards tonality while not altogether abandoning the freedom that Rouse’s free-wheeling use of atonality and polytonality provides the composer, gives the listener a welcome oasis of tranquility before the Concerto for Orchestra, where once more the composer demonstrates his ability to fearlessly take the listener from restlessness in tempo and melody lines to pockets of mysterious quiet.

This listener can think of no other composer in our time who can so enticingly transport us into music of such other sonic worlds.

Rafael de Acha

WHAT MY MUSIC AND THEATRE FRIENDS ARE DOING THESE DAYS

For creative people in the arts – many of them free-lancers who live from gig to gig – economic stability and security are most often uncertain. Now in the midst of the current pandemic their financial challenges have increased thousand-fold.

A long-tem friend, an unemployed talented set designer and theatre teacher is “… mostly bored…going through the thousands of photos from my travels. I also participate in an occasional on line scavenger hunt with other artists and theater folk. It’s a lot of fun and it raises money for various causes…”

Now that the pandemic has become a world-wide crisis, freelance artists and even those gainfully employed by major orchestras, regional theatres and dance companies are all facing major life decisions: “Do I move in with my parents or friends or move out of the big city or even consider a career change…What can I do to survive?”

Another long-term friend – a terrific sound designer, sounds off a somewhat positive, though certainly realistic note: “Well, my work has pretty much stopped short. I haven’t been employed since mid-March… all my summer shows have been cancelled. I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed the break however. Having 3 months off to decompress has…allowed me to reflect on what being a freelance designer means…Now that I’ve been home with my family for so long, I see how important that is to me and I will concentrate on a better work-life balance…”

Theatre, the most collaborative and multi-disciplinary of all the performing arts needs actors, directors, and designer-technicians like my designer friends.

Here is one of two enormously talented musicians: “(we) put together a 5-day virtual violin intensive – like a camp – a crash course on music theory, violin technique, sight reading, and more! The biggest unfortunate reality for us was being unable to travel… and visit my grandparents – something (we) have done every summer of our lives. Thankfully, they are all healthy and know how to video call!”

With great resilience and in spite of having lost three gigs – one of them an entire concert series that she directs, this young musician is grateful for a ‘drive by’ concert that a neighbor hired her for and for the opportunity to grow a vegetable garden.

These are just some of the stories about artist friends from the worlds of performing arts in which almost all activities can only be pursued along with others. Solo instrumentalists need a collaborative artist – a pianist or an orchestra or at the very least another instrumentalist. A theatre designer needs a technical staff to flesh out the artistic concept.

A gifted young man that we know and admire has lost his part-time work both as an accompanist to singers and as a music librarian, on top of his work playing for various churches around town. All of it is on hold.

An esteemed composer of our acquaintance who has made a successful living in New York for most of his working life is now preparing to leave the Big Apple now that work has all but dried up and come home where rentals are cheaper and where he hopes to diversify his income by doing   some part time teaching.

Another friend, a talented bass-baritone and voice teacher has been able to continue doing his instruction on line, but all up and coming singing gigs have vanished from his schedule. He is even contemplating the possibility of doing a recital on line. As a tenured professor in a major music conservatory he holds out the hope that a projected student production that he is slated to direct and co-produce will take place, although the school, in his words “has had to reorganize and rethink, and in some cases reprogram the entire season.”

Some stories, like the one about a very fine pianist and her husband, a gifted composer are potent, and their hopeful words compelling.

Like many of our colleagues, we were very sad to see the cancellation and postponement of performances and projects which we were very excited for: However, we have been extremely lucky to be able to take part in projects in response to COVID-19 (such as) our own… series which merges experimental video, photography, and… contemporary music…This extra time has given us the opportunity to reconnect with nature, slow down our speed, and work on our practice in new and rewarding ways…We both have found so much hope and imagination from our colleagues and the arts during this pandemic, and we want to share that positive message as much as possible.”

Designers, instrumentalists, singers… They all need an audience. They need Federal, State, and City assistance. They need governmental and private entities, donors, foundations, corporations to step up to help so that the artists in our country can continue to do their work in 2020, pandemic-ravaged America, work that will lift up our spirits and alleviate our cares and our grief.

Rafael de Acha

An intriguing 21st century composition

Commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Manfred Honeck, the ensemble’s superb Music Director, Jonathan Leshnoff’s  beautiful Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon affords PSO principals Michael Rusinek (clarinet) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon) the opportunity to shine as soloists in this gorgeous 20-minute-long, three-movement composition.

Leshnoff’s music is unabashedly accessible. From the onset of the composition the composer establishes a bucolic, dreamy tonal landscape that at once engages the listener with the ebb and flow of its melancholy utterances.

First the bassoon then the clarinet, alternate in a quiet dialogue built on a short melodic motif that is gradually echoed by the orchestra. It is a haunting entrance into the world of this concerto and its composer.

But soon and early in the movement the tranquility of the beginning is briefly interrupted by a climactic outburst from the orchestra, only to soon return to the opening mood of the movement.

Less-than-three minutes in duration the humorous second movement is set to a waltz tempo. The music is elegant, at all times playful, capitalizing on the bassoon’s grumpy lower range, with the clarinet reminding its fellow woodwind brother to stop grumbling, which it does abruptly.

The third movement is all agility and syncopation, giving the soloists a workout in its rapid ascents and descents alone and in tandem. Suddenly the mood changes into a brief cantabile passage for the clarinet to give it center stage. Then the up and down antics of the two solo instruments resume their good-natured competition.

Now it is the bassoon that commands the attention, the way the clarinet did earlier in the movement. The activity increases as does the technical demands on both players, the entire affair careening towards an unpredictably blunt ending.

I am tempted to name this work as one of the most intriguing 21st century compositions this listener has ever encountered, for which huge gratitude is due to Reference Records, to Maestro Manfred Honeck and his Pittsburgh players, to the two superlative soloists – clarinetist Michael Rusinek and bassoonist Nancy Goeres, and most of all to the immensely gifted Jonathan Leshnoff, from whom we beg for more gems like this one.

We entreat the reader to get hold of this wonderful issue, either as a CD or as a download so as to enjoy in addition to the Leshnoff Double Concerto, a noble, bold, exhilarating performance of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 4 in F minor, opus 36.

Honeck drives the impulsiveness of the Russian master’s cri de coeur composition with an uncanny mix of fury and heartbreak, profound pathos and ultimately with a glimmer of the hope that allowed the composer to live through the innumerable vicissitudes that plagued his personal and professional lives.

This recording is already in my short list of BEST OF 2020.

Rafael de Acha – http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com  

A treasure trove of Baroque delights

Would Vivaldi have written more music for the clarinet if the instrument at his disposal had had all the bells and whistles of a modern one?

Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst tackles the answer to that question in the wonderful new Sony release Vivaldi, by playing three clarinet concertos using music from Vivaldi’s operas L’Olimpiade, Ottone in villa, La fida ninfa, Il Giustino, and the oratorio Juditha triumphans.

The results are splendid.

Performing on the chalumeau – the predecessor of the modern clarinet – as well as on a modern clarinet Fröst meets all the challenges an instrumentalist is likely to encounter when playing music conceived for the virtuoso vocalists of Vivaldi’s day.

The Swedish virtuoso displays dazzling technique, impeccable musicality, and an elegant way with the seamless legato required by the music.

The album is complemented with two Sinfonias and La Tortora, a charming air for chalumeau

Vivaldi, a treasure trove of Baroque delights recorded with the peerless baroque ensemble Concerto Köln is available as either download or CD.

Rafael de Acha

A BEETHOVEN FOR OUR TIMES.

A BEETHOVEN FOR OUR TIMES.

Undoubtedly Classical Music is undergoing tremendous changes, now more than ever in the era of Covid 19 and social distancing. Conductors and soloists are coming in newer, hipper models. Cool is no longer frowned upon. But neither is poor musicianship acceptable. Impostors are exposed. Routine music making is no longer tolerated.

Take Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis. With his European Indie film actor rugged looks, disheveled brown hair, basic-black wardrobe, leather jacket, and biker boots you’d think you were looking at a 1960’s nouvelle vague film idol rather than the much admired conductor of the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra.

But looks aside, this intriguing maestro throws tradition aside and, casting caution to the winds, sails through all four movements of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 at top speed, drawing from his musicians a performance in which fast and faster tempi, extreme dynamic contrasts between piano and pianissimo, and forte and fortissimo, and overall drive are the hallmarks.

From the iconic triplet da-da-da-duhm that signals to even the neophyte that we must sit up and listen, to a defiantly fast final movement, Currentzis hits the mark time and again. This is  an angry, defiant Beethoven for our troubled times.

The Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra is a finely tuned ensemble totally attuned to their conductor’s uniquely off the beaten path Beethoven. If you are looking for a solemnly Germanic approach, look elsewhere. If you are looking for fresh air in the hallowed halls of the Classical repertory Currentzis is your man in this top-notch SONY release.

Rafael de Acha

I didn’t ‘get’ German Opera until I was old

I didn’t ‘get’ German Opera until I was old.

See the source image

Let me tell you up front that I didn’t ‘get’ German Opera until I was old and retired and had enough time in my hands to sit through the entire three hours plus of a Wagner opus. By then I had been going to the opera and listening to operas on Saturday afternoon’s radio broadcasts from the MET with Milton Cross mispronouncing the names of singers, and buying opera LP’s, and much later CD’s all that since I saw my first opera at fifteen – La traviata in Havana – and got hooked on the joys and sorrows of Violetta and Alfredo and their operatic goings on.

But most of all that opera-going and listening and discussing with friends at Juilliard where I went to study Voice in my early twenties was Italian (si!) and a little French (oui!) but hardly any German (nein!) or Russian (nyet!!!).

Maybe it was partly the fault of my teachers: Jennie Tourel – an Opera star in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s who specialized in French roles – and Marion Szekely-Freschl – a Hungarian Opera star in pre WWII Europe who sang a lot of German Opera but could not bear the sound of the German language because it reminded her of the family she lost in Europe during the dreadful years leading up to and during the Second World War.

So it was all Mozart (in Italian) and Handel (in Italian) and Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti (all in Italian) what made me fall in love with Italian Opera all over again, even though most of the music Verdi and Puccini wrote was beyond my vocal capabilities, as was the entire Wagner canon, written in a language I could not speak and music I could not begin to sing.

The role of Papageno in Mozart’s German-language The Magic Flute was betted by my teachers and it became a suitable choice in the ubiquitous Ruth and Thomas Martin translation.

But that was as far as far as my forays into the German rep went.

And yet and now in my golden years I am starting to love German Opera. I can’t sing it to save my live – never could – but I can certainly listen to it, even an entire Tristan und Isolde in one sitting, as I recently did and lived to tell.

Most people I know can easily identify with most of those father figures in Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra and the hapless heroine of Aida and the head-over-heels tenors in love in Don Carlo and in just about any Puccini opera.

Their plights and challenges and emotional roller coasters are not far removed from those of many of us common folk, even if their exotic or lofty stations as court jesters or royalty or high-class call-girls or enslaved princesses make them seemingly different from mere mortals like you and me.

They are not.

But, when it comes to all those fantastical beings – gods, giants, monsters, talking dragons, swimming-singing maidens, knights who commune with the goddess of love, strangers who go around in boats pulled by a swan, evil magicians, and women and men who drink magical potions that make them fall in love, and singing shoe-makers in love with a girl half their age… well… our capacity for empathy and our ability to temporarily suspend disbelief are challenged.

But then, there is the music.

If an opera producer is fortunate to secure the services of a tenor who can look like a young fellow in his teens (Parsifal, Siegfried) or a handsome hero (Sigmund, Walther, Tristan, Lohengrin) or a soprano who can pass for a maiden of 18 in distress or in love or both (Isolde, Elsa, Elisabeth, Sieglinde, Eva…) and sing with lungs of steel, luck is on his side.

The challenge is that most singers capable to take on the high decibel, sustained, vocally-punishing writing Wagner assigned especially to his sopranos and tenors and baritones and deliver in a house like the MET with its 3,800 seats and be heard over an orchestra that can have over one hundred musicians competing in the anything-you-can-sing-I-can-play-louder marathons that Wagnerian performances can often become, often look like anything but the characters they are asked to portray.

But then, there is the music.

Listening to an opera by Wagner on the computer (Thank you, You Tube) or on a CD is for me much more enjoyable than dressing up and driving to the theatre after paying a hefty price for a pair of tickets for my companion and myself, and trying to stay awake though an eons-long Wagnerian work.

In the comfort of home I can pause, get up to get a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and then come back to slug my way through Tristan und Isolde.

And if I don’t like the modern-dress production by director XYZ – the one set in a WWI submarine (… not making this up… ) – why then I can turn that off and watch another choice on You Tube or, often my strategy, choose a vintage recording with some of the greats of the past (Birgit Nilson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Hans Hotter) and close my eyes and create my very own staging in my mind.

Wagner does not provide many entries for the Opera Hit Parade. His through-composed writing style makes it difficult to pull out excerpts, the way one can with the stop-for-applause-and-start-again approach of most of Verdi and Puccini.

Wagner’s Greatest Hits are orchestral – the overtures to Rienzi, Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, the Preludes to Acts I and III of Lohengrin, the Good Friday music of Parsifal, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Funeral March

So hang in there, all of you members of the Verdi and Puccini fan clubs, and give Wagner a try.

Slowly.

Start with Flying Dutchman, then work your way through Tannhäuser and Lohengrin… then, when you feel ready for a sixteen-hour journey on the Rhine, go for the four-operas musical marathon that makes up the Ring Cycle.

After that, use some Mozart as a palate cleanser.