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

An 18th century gift

Towards the end of 1790 a major live event awaited Franz Joseph Haydn.

The scion of the family that had for long so generously feathered the composer’s nest was trimming the family budget and giving walking papers to the members of the 15-strong chamber orchestra that had week after week played the composer’s works for the entertainment and cultural edification of the Esterhazy family and their friends.

No stranger to the vicissitudes of life as a composer-conductor, the 58 year old Father of the Symphony was ready to pack his bags and seek greener grass elsewhere. Fate provided the opportunity to obtain gainful employment and London awaited.

Here Haydn had an all expenses paid though admittedly arduous journey by carriage and once out of land-locked Austria by sailing vessel to take him to London, where an orchestra three-times the size of the one for which he had been writing for the past three decades would be at his command.

That marked the first of two visits to the English capital, where the public fell in love with the Austrian maestro and where he readily reciprocated.

The twelve symphonies magisterially conducted by Sir Roger Norrington at the helm of the invaluable Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra in live performances in front of an audience all date from the years 1791 to 1795, and therein one can enjoy all the earmarks of the Haydn style brought out by Sir Roger and his musicians: the humor, the nobility of utterance, the crispness of rhythm, the elegance, the unpredictability, the superb harmonic construct, the classic contrapuntal scheme.

Where Mozart created by a kind of mystical inspiration Haydn delivered symphony after symphony by sheer perspiration. But any old working stiff would not have transcended the limits of the commonplace, whereas eccentric Haydn, buffoonish Haydn, unpredictable yet disciplined Haydn pushed on as he had since landing on his feet at age 17 in the streets of Vienna as a free-lance musical jack of all trades singing for his supper in the homes of the Austrian aristocracy.

The superbly engineered, elegantly packaged 4-disc set includes among twelve gems the nick-named Clock, Drum roll, Surprise, Military, Miracle and London symphonies; an 18th century gift made available by SWR Music.

Heartfelt thanks!

Rafael de Acha     All About the Arts

A sui generis Lieder composer

Swiss poet Conrad Ferdinand Meyer provided the quintessentially Romanic texts for the two-dozen plu poems set to music by fellow Swiss Othmar Schoeck in his Geheimnis und Gleichnis, for which I offer the English translation Secrets and Similarities.

Mentored by Max Reger and an avowed admirer of both Hugo Wolf and Ferruccio Busoni, Schoeck developed a vast compositional output primarily focused on vocal music. At first decidedly post-Romantic in sensibility, Schoeck’s music gradually abandoned obeisance to tonality without fully following the dictates of the Second Viennese School, ultimately developing a sui generis style much admired by enterprising recitalists.  

Sung to perfection by the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Clara O’Brien and superbly partnered by pianist James Douglass in the Ablaze Records (ar-00063) release, the artists chose all 28 selections, some as brief as the 57-second- long In Harmesnächten, some as extended in duration as the 5-minute-long Reisephantasie.

Ranging in tone from the lyrical simplicity of the wedding song Hochzeitsleid to the dramatic sweep of the paean to the majesty of the ocean Der Gesang des Meeres the collection of Schoeck Lieder never overstays its welcome thanks to the composer’s compositional gifts, the perfect marriage of text to music, and the protean interpretive gifts or the artists.

The neatly packaged, clearly annotated and cleanly engineered recording is available from www.ablazerecords.net

Rafael de Acha     All About the Arts

ANITA RACHVELISHVILI IN SONG

There are very many good voices. There are even some great voices around, although those do not abound. What is rare to find these days is a great voice in the body of a great singing artist. Those are a few in a thousand, if that many. Anita Rachvelishvili is that rare individual: a great voice and a great artist both in a perfect combination.

Since the Georgian mezzo-soprano sings a good number of the selections in this album in Russian, the English titles are given here for ease of identification.

Elégie, includes the familiar How fair this spot and None but the lonely heart, the declamatory, quasi operatic Night, O do not mourn me, and Reconciliation, and the lyrical Child you are beautiful as a flower, Sing to me, my beauty, I fell in love, and How fair this spot – all Tchaikovsky Romances that call for a full palette of vocal colors fully at the disposal of the artistically and vocally inexhaustible Anita Rachvelishvili. Here she is accompanied by the superb pianist Vincenzo Scalera, who proves to be the ideal musical partner in this recording.

There is a hauntingly beautiful song exquisitely sung by Ms. Rachvelishvili in her native Georgian: Otar Taktakihvili’s Mzeo Tiabatvis (Sun  of Haying Month). There are Manuel de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares delivered in idiomatic Castilian Spanish, there are three Tosti songs elevated by the singer from salon evergreens to art songs, including the beloved Ideale. There are three French mélodies: Chanson Triste, La Vie Antérieure, and Elégie sung with Gallic flair and impeccable diction.

In any idiom Ms. Rachvelishvili imbues her singing of this recital repertoire with restraint and elegance, never for a moment betraying the delicacy of the genre with any larger than life operatic grandstanding – this all the more remarkable since we are dealing here with a large, voluptuous, dramatic mezzo-soprano utterly comfortable in any of the major Verdi roles which she so comfortably inhabits.

The SONY CLASSICAL INTERNATIONAL recording is perfectly engineered and elegantly produced, providing yet another superb calling card to one of the greatest singers currently working today.

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT  THE ARTS

Good news for music lovers: Summermusik is back

Good news for music lovers: after a pandemic silence of nearly two years, Summermusik –  the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s brainchild is back.

An interesting lineup of concerts has been announced in its website (www.ccocincinnati.org) and Cincinnati music lovers are encouraged to visit it or call 513 723 1182 (x2) during business hours to learn the what, where, when of it all.

Most notably the indispensable ensemble, led by Eckart Preu is moving its events outdoors – a prudently cautious and innovative change from the much admired organization.

Here are just a few highlights of their summer of 2021 activities:

  • August 6, 8 pm – The young cellist Sujari Britt solos with the full CCO orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. The musical lineup also includes the Cincinnati premiere of George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. The 90-minute, no intermission program is rounded out with Beethoven’s light-hearted Fourth Symphony.
  • August 20, 8 pm – Violinist Caroline Goulding is the featured soloist in Mozart’s “Turkish” violin concerto in the same program with three premieres by women composers: Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, Reena Esmail’s Teen Murti, and Gabriella Smith’s Brandenburg interstices.

In addition to the opening and closing full orchestra concerts, the CCO will feature several of its musicians playing everything from the Beatles to Bach in various intimate performances. Under the omnibus titles Chamber Crawls and A Little Afternoon Musik, the out-of-doors festival will feature concerts at the Cincinnati Zoo, at the Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park, and at Coney Island.

It sounds like a prescription for a healthy and fun out of doors celebration of music.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Pene Pati and Ronny Michel Greenberg give a great recital in Cincinnati

Tenor Pene Pati returned to Cincinnati on Friday to sing again for Matinee Musicale, the ever young 108 year old musical treasure that continues to bring to the Queen City the best and brightest musical stars after a much needed year long hiatus.

The New Zealander tenor was partnered by the superb pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg, and together the two men presented one of the finest song recitals in recent memory.

Pene Pati is a fast rising lyric tenor no longer on the brink but in the midst of a major career. More often than not opera singers tend to deliver song recitals that come off more like strings of opera’ hits instead of purposeful explorations of the riches of song literature. In the case of the spectacularly gifted Pene Pati and the sterling Ronny Michael Greenberg the pair focused on selections of three melodies of Henri Duparc, and two songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff, balancing the seriousness of Duparc and Rachmaninoff with Gioacchino Rossini‘s La Danza and three Italian evergreens: Leoncavallo’s Matinata, and Tosti’s La Serenata and ‘A vucchella.

There was a Mozart rarity from Mitridate, re di Ponto, which would have come at the end of a vocally challenging, hour long program. It was prudently excised and substituted tongue-in-cheek with a Maori song that ends with a grimace that calls for the singer’s tongue to be stuck out. Throughout the program the artists’ seriousness of purpose was tempered with a warm casualness that won over the audience from the very start of the concert.

Two arias amply demonstrated the why and wherefore of Pati’s meteoric ascent to the top of his profession: Des Grieux’s Dream aria from Massenet’s Manon and Lensky’s soliloquy from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. In both Pati sang with plangent tone and a great command of the mezza-voce called for, only sparingly opening up into a full-out forte.

Pati is at the top of his game, equipped with a sizeable voice that rises easily above the staff with no sign of strain. His technique, musicianship and musicality are impeccable and so is his command of French, Italian and Russian.

Ronny Michael Greenberg is the ideal collaborative pianist, flexible and yet able to  state his musical viewpoints in the important introductions and interludes of the repertory that was heard this afternoon.

The Cincinnati audience loved the work of these two fine artists and let them know with a rousing ovation at the end.

The program will be repeated on Sunday at 3:00 pm.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts        

Pene Pati and Ronny Michael Greenberg in one of the finest song recitals in recent memory.

Tenor Pene Pati returned to Cincinnati on Friday to sing again for Matinee Musicale, the ever young 108 year old musical treasure that continues to bring to the Queen City the best and brightest musical stars after a much needed year long hiatus.

The New Zealander tenor was partnered by the superb pianist Ronny Michael Greenberg, and together the two men presented one of the finest song recitals in recent memory.

Pene Pati is a fast rising lyric tenor no longer on the brink but in the midst of a major career. More often than not opera singers tend to deliver song recitals that come off more like strings of opera’ hits instead of purposeful explorations of the riches of song literature. In the case of the spectacularly gifted Pene Pati and the sterling Ronny Michael Greenberg the pair focused on selections of three melodies of Henri Duparc, and two songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff, balancing the seriousness of Duparc and Rachmaninoff with Gioacchino Rossini‘s La Danza and three Italian evergreens: Leoncavallo’s Matinata, and Tosti’s La Serenata and ‘A vucchella.

There was a Mozart rarity from Mitridate, re di Ponto, which would have come at the end of a vocally challenging, hour long program. It was prudently excised and substituted tongue-in-cheek with a Maori song that ends with a grimace that calls for the singer’s tongue to be stuck out. Throughout the program the artists’ seriousness of purpose was tempered with a warm casualness that won over the audience from the very start of the concert.

Two arias amply demonstrated the why and wherefore of Pati’s meteoric ascent to the top of his profession: Des Grieux’s Dream aria from Massenet’s Manon and Lensky’s soliloquy from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. In both Pati sang with plangent tone and a great command of the mezza-voce called for, only sparingly opening up into a full-out forte.

Pati is at the top of his game, equipped with a sizeable voice that rises easily above the staff with no sign of strain. His technique, musicianship and musicality are impeccable and so is his command of French, Italian and Russian.

Ronny Michael Greenberg is the ideal collaborative pianist, flexible and yet able to  state his musical viewpoints in the important introductions and interludes of the repertory that was heard this afternoon.

The Cincinnati audience loved the work of these two fine artists and let them know with a rousing ovation at the end.

The program will be repeated on Sunday at 3:00 pm.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts             

A perfect Cosi fan tutte

If I could get away with it I would write a one-word review of the OPUS ARTE DVD of the 2010 Royal Opera production of Cosi fan tutte. That imperfect one-word review would be Perfect!

But please indulge me as I rave in more than just one word about what might be the most perfectly realized staging of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s most seriously cynical comedy.

Director Jonathan Miller is to my mind a genius who revealed to so very many of us throughout his career many treasurable insights into some of the essential works for the lyric stage.

Here he crafted in this no-nonsense Cosi a perfectly balanced mix of unflinching realism and theatrical artifice. In this production the late English director wears in addition to his regular hat of stage director those of set designer, costume designer, and lighting designer, crafting a unified vision in which all of the action happens in an indoor setting. Here there are no doors, no windows, just a couple of openings for entrances and exits. Few props are provided, lighting changes are subtle, the costumes are more like contemporary dress: a business suit and top coat for Don Alfonso, lounge wear for the sisters. Despina wears a smart business suit not a maid’s outfit. Guglielmo and Ferrando go from Army fatigues to hippie get ups. There are few pieces of furniture and many of them are covered up in dust cloths.  

Most gratifying is Miller’s work with the actors: an international cast in which each of the six principals sings in flawless Italian with a clear understanding of what is being sung by them and to them.

Sir Thomas Allen is elegantly dapper and faultless as Don Alfonso, and in his sixties he sings very well indeed. Rebecca Evans is earthy and pretty as Despina, and she sings gloriously. The four lovers are sheer perfection (there goes that word again!): Pavol Breslik a fine lyric tenor, Stéphane Degout as good an actor and singer in the role of Guglielmo as I have ever encountered. The sisters are lovely: Jurgyta Adamonyté a terrific singing actress and very funny as Dorabella, and Maria Bengtsson a vocally elegant and dramatically vulnerable Fiordiligi.

Thomas Hengelbrock leads the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House with a perfect command of the score, allowing the singers all the room in the world  to make both music and text come alive from start to finish.

Indeed, perfect!

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS                                            

The superb c/o Orchestra signals with Divertissement, their debut album for BIS a bright future

Jacque Ibert’s subversively anarchic Divertissement is a six-movement suite of incidental music that the French composer wrote in 1930 for Eugene Labiche’s farce The Italian Straw Hat.

The hat of the title, meant for a groom to wear at his wedding, is eaten by a horse at the start of the play, setting in motion a chaotic series of comic twists and turns that Ibert turns into a bizarre musical romp in which snippets of Mendelssohn, Ravel, Debussy, Boulez, Wagner, and Satie keep insanely comic off-kilter company with each other.

The Nocturne could be used as film music for a Gallic thriller starring your favorite French star. The Valse parodies the vulgarity or the inspired brilliance of three-quarter time ditties, depending of the provenance. The Cortège deceives he unsuspecting listener into thinking that a funeral march is about to happen, that is until Ibert turns it into a joyful romp that hovers between Mendelssohn and cacophony.  The opening Introduction, the insanely Parade, and the rollicking Finale bring memories of silent film clowns.

Ibert’s music is brilliantly orchestrated, inventively melodic, and fiendishly funny in its satire of any musical fad and fashion that surfaced during the composer’s lifetime.

Unbeknownst to me until I first heard his music in this album, Jean Émile Auguste Bernard was a late Romantic French composer. Bernard – not to be confused with his namesake the painter Émile Bernard, composed his delightful Divertissement for chamber orchestra as an uncharacteristically light-hearted, often playful work, especially for an artist who made his living as a church organist. The three-movement offers countless solo opportunities to the woodwinds of the marvelous c/o Orchestra.

Béla Bartók’s Divertimento is a mid-career, three-movement work for string orchestra composed on the brink of World War II.

Bartók was a friend and musical protégée of Paul Sacher, the founder of the Swiss chamber orchestra Basler Kammerorchester, which commissioned Bartók to compose the Divertimento, a 23-minutes short but nevertheless complex work which the composer wrote in the space of two weeks.

Even though Bartók felt a bit like fish out of water away from his birth country, his mood was cautiously optimistic and his music for this intriguing composition reflects it, especially in the energetically brisk first and final movements. The middle Adagio gives hints of the angst that permeated a great number of the Hungarian master’s oeuvre, giving this  Divertimento a sometimes serious tone not often associated with the genre.

American composer Michael Ippolito’s soberly titles three of the four movements of his Divertimento: Con moto, Minuetto, Allegro, etc. But then he sneaks up on us with the work’s second movement, which he titles Aria burlesca, and which he deceptively begins with sweet figurations from the woodwinds. Then, suddenly, the music purposely stumbles and there is a thump from the percussion, which in a comic opera could signal the buffo bass drunkenly tripping on a piece of furniture and falling. Then we know that we are treading a mine field of comedy-in-music in which anything goes. And it does.

The third movement – a Minuet and Allegro Maestoso – sounds like a movement from a classical symphony as if Old Papa Haydn had composed under the influence of some illegal substance. The harmonies follow each other in topsy-turvy fashion, though they make perfectly good, if humorous, sense. The raucous music is all of a piece and enormous fun.

The final movement starts as a consonant Adagio that suddenly turns into a fugue in the strings with hiccups from the brass and burps from a dyspeptic timpani. Here and there nobly melodic phrases pop up that deceive one once more into thinking that the composer might be getting serious on us. But no, Ippolito is not deadly serious but lively comical and equipped with major chops as a seriously gifted musical artist, which goes to show that humor in any art form is one of the most difficult things to accomplish.

Throughout the CD the superbly enterprising, conductor-less c/o Orchestra plays brilliantly, with equal participation from all thirty of its members, signaling with Divertissement, their debut album for BIS that their creative future in our new-normal, post-pandemic musical world looms brightly.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS