BACKWARDS FROM WINTER Douglas Knehans’ monodrama with libretto by Juanita Rockwell

Ice doubles the glass/divides in here from out there/white webbing the dark/– glazing patch wire branch and stone/crazing the snow’s smooth expanse/one red and one black/two koi move, each one solo/now this way now that/swim beneath a frozen sky/longing for another sun/your coat around me/hollowing out your pillow/your lamp still burning/making snow angels in sheets–nothing warms our empty bed/divides in here from out there

Thus begins Douglas Knehans’ monodrama BACKWARDS FROM WINTER, with a libretto by Juanita Rockwell, a work for voice, electronic cello and electronics issued by ablaze records (ar-00054)

BACKWARDS FROM WINTER is an unusually structured musical journey taken in a retrograde manner, commencing with a desolate depiction of a woman in a darkening winter of the physical world and the soul.

Longing, separation, grief – are motives that will echo throughout a four chapter account that begins with the chill of winter, then moves to the cool of fall, then to the heat of summer, and finally to the joys of spring, with interludes separating the sections, in each of which the emotions that began the trip into memory gradually change from utter desolation to recent grief to the memory of intense passion to the hope eternal that lives in spring.

With great economy of means composer Douglas Knehans has created a potently compelling composition for the stage that should prove utterly viable for production now more than ever in the perilous world in which the arts live.

Conceived for soprano voice and one non-singing actor and scored for one accompanying instrument and electronics, BACKWARDS FROM WINTER should allow great freedom to any stage director, given its poetic, non-linear narrative.

The role of the woman is taxing, calling for endurance and utter comfort in the upper reaches of the soprano range, demands that do not seem to faze soprano Judith Weusten, who delivers an impressively sung and intensely expressive performance in this recording.

The electronic cello part is beautifully played by Antonis Pratsinakis, and composer Knehans provides all manner of electronic effects, strongly supported by engineers Greg Gurr and Silas Brown.

All in all BACKWARDS FROM WINTER is a superb chamber opera whose future – we fervently hope – will be bright and fruitful.

Rafael de Acha     September 24, 2020           

MUSIC FROM LATVIA by Talivaldis Keninš

Talivaldis Keninš (1919–2008) is like many other artists of Latvian heritage – through no fault of his – a victim of the Latvian Diaspora endured by the people of the small European nation during the years in which their country was under Soviet domination.

Born in Latvia, Ķeniņš lived most of his life in Paris and Canada, where he taught and continued to compose, before returning home in his latter years.

His Concerto di camera No. 1 (1981) written for flute, clarinet and piano is intriguingly structured and nobly played on this CD by Tommaso Pratola (flute), Mārtiņš Circenis, (clarinet), and pianist Agnese Egliņa. It is here given a compelling performance led by Guntis Kuzma,.

Keninš’ Concerto for Piano, Strings and Percussion (1990) is a dramatic and at times anguished work in which the composer expresses his feelings about the events that led to the long awaited liberation of Latvia in 1991.

The concerto is divided into a fast/slow/fast structure, in which the brief first and last movements call for virtuosic playing here generously provided by percussionist Edgars Saksons and pianist Agnese Egliņa, led again by Guntis Kuzma.

Ķeniņš wrote his First Symphony in 1959. The work melds the folk music of the Baltic people and the contemporary in a composition brief in duration but expansive in scope, given in this Ondine release a superb rendition under the baton of Andris Poga.

As someone who writes about music I have become familiar with the work of Latvian conductors Andris Nelsons and Mariss Jansons, violinist Gidon Kremer, and soprano Kristine Opolais. Yet I shamefully confess to complete ignorance about Latvian music, which this terrific Ondine release will help me gradually remedy.

Rafael de Acha September 23, 2020

For those wishing to listen to a sample of Talivaldis Keninš’ music here are two of his choral numbers:

CHORAL MUSIC FROM ESTONIA: Sei la luce e il mattino (You Are Light and Morning) by the Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits

A recently composed work for choir and orchestra, Sei la luce e il mattino (You Are Light and Morning) by the Estonian composer Tõnu Kõrvits has been released by ONDINE featuring the peerless pairing of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallin Chamber Orchestra, beautifully led by Risto Joost,

The poetry of the 20th-century Italian writer Cesare Pavese, filled as it is with symbols about nature and their imprint on the life and death of human beings, is brought to life by Kõrvits in lyrical, meditative music, wherein elements of nature: wind, fire, water, earth are equated to aspects of the human condition: longing , regret, loneliness, love.

Kõrvits’ melodic, utterly Romantic, tonally-centered music is haunting and evocative, and his keen talent for text setting and tone painting is never more vividly present than in his setting of Pavese’s Tu sei come una terra (here in our translation) first sung by the chorus:

You are like a land that no one has ever uttered

You wait for nothing other than the word

Which like a fruit amidst tree branches

Will be dredged out of the bottom

It is a wind that nears you

Dried and dead things obscure you, swept away by the wind

Limbs and ancient words

You tremble in summer

A sample of the music of Tõnu Kõrvits: Peegeldused tasasest maast (The Northern Wild) –

Rafael de Acha www. 9/23/20


Not quite October yet, but given both some personal circumstances and the upcoming political turmoil that will most likely surround the final weeks of 2020, here’s our BEST OF YEAR list, culled from hundreds of DVD’s and CD’s sent to us for reviewing starting in January. Should more outstanding new recordings should reach us between now and January 1st 2021, they will be taken into consideration and added to our list. One more thing: the recordings in our BEST OF YEAR are listed here in random order, neither preferentially nor chronologically.

  • Mozart y Mambo released by ALPHA joins our list as one of the best albums of the year. It defies categorization merely inviting the listeners to set aside preconceptions and listen to a cool mix of the Austrian (Mozart) and the Cuban (Perez Prado, Ibrahim Ferrer) played with a mixed combination of Cuban sabor and classical elegance by horn player Sarah Willis, saxophonist Yuniet Lombida, trumpeter Harold Madrigal, pianist Jorge Aragón, and the enormously versatile Havana Lyceum Orchestra led by José Antonio Méndez. Full review:
  • The release IF THE NIGHT GROWS DARK by BRIGHT SHINY THINGS [BSTC-0140, CD] is a treasure trove of Spanish songs arranged for guitar and voice by Graciano Tarragó, and exquisitely performed by soprano Camille Zamora and guitarist Cem Duruöz. With their easy back and forth musical dialogue, with Zamora‘s perfect diction in Castilian, Catalan, Gallego and Basque, and a sublime voice perfectly suited to this music, and with Duruöz’s elegantly idiomatic playing, the two artists deliver musical gold throughout the entire duration of the album. FULL REVIEW:
  • SOMM Recordings released a fascinating album featuring two late-19th-century Romantic Piano Concertos: the Fifth Piano Concerto in F major, “Egyptian” by Camille Saint-Saëns, and the unfamiliar and enormously impressive Piano Concerto, Op.10 by the Brazilian Henrique Oswald, both replete with mind-boggling technical hurdles which the formidable Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun elegantly tosses off in a stunning performance that also boasts the solid support of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra superbly led by Dutch maestro Jac Van Steen. FULL REVIEW:
  • Commissioned and premiered by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and beautifully conducted by Manfred Honeck, Jonathan Leshnoff’s Double Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon on REFERENCE RECORDS affords two of the orchestra’s principals: Michael Rusinek (clarinet) and Nancy Goeres (bassoon) the opportunity to shine as soloists in this gorgeous composition. We enjoyed in addition a boldly exhilarating performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor included in this CD. FULL REVIEW:
  • The Jupiter String Quartet delivered in a MARQUIS CLASSICS release a noble performance of György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 and Métamorphoses Nocturnes filled with gravitas that never lapsed into self-importance. Ligeti’s music calls for muscular playing and chameleonic changes of attack, tonality and mood, and the Jupiter String Quartet astonished with its virtuosic playing and its meticulous musicianship in one of the finest albums of the year. FULL REVIEW:
  • SIMONE DINNERSTEIN: A CHARACTER OF QUIET released by Orange Mountain Music, featured Dinnerstein’s playing of three of Philip Glass’s Etudes revealing the seemingly simple beauty of these miniatures with utmost clarity, and comfortably embracing the at times deceivingly static nature of these delicate gems. By contrast Dinnerstein’s rendition of Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 – his last –  is deeply Romantic, affectingly portraying the music of an ailing young man holding on for dear life to life while continuing to make music. FULL REVIEW:
  • There are times when music can provide healing, induce calm, soothe our troubled hearts, allay our fears, and for a moment dispel our cares. As I sat late one night, and let this music so exquisitely played and shared with me by five formidable artists create its magic, time stopped and all that mattered in that moment was the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms magically played by the Alexander String Quartet and Eli Eban in a  Foghorn Records CD. FULL REVIEW:
  • During the two and a half hours musical-dramatic journey that the protean Stuart Skelton shares with a marvelous cast led by the superb English conductor Edward Gardner the splendid Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus shine in the several interludes that depict the ever changing surrounding seas that mirror the equally fluctuating human emotions that permeate Britten’s Peter Grimes – a harrowing story about an odd man out given a superbly engineered production in a new CD by CHANDOS. Full review:
  • Jonas Kaufmann – at the age of 51 a dramatic tenor at the top of his game – is an artist of uncommon sensitivity with the vocal equipment to surmount the perils in Verdi’s Otello a score chockfull of them. Carlos Alvarez is a superb Iago, Federica Lombardi a marvelous Desdemona, possessing a crystalline voice ideal for the role of the guiltless young wife. Antonio Pappano is the ideal Verdi interpreter, summoning fire and brimstone from his Santa Cecilia forces when needed and at other times eliciting delicate, shimmering playing in the Sony Classical CD. FULL REVIEW:
  • In DESIRE, her Sony Classical release of operatic arias Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak delivers a gorgeous lyric sound, pinpoint accuracy, intensity, and the sort of respectfulness for the written note that includes observing repeats and executing what’s written rather than what comes to the singer’s whim. Add to that flawless diction in Italian, French, Polish, Czech and Russian, and one quickly concludes that this artist has come into her own with complete artistic-vocal equipment. FULL REVIEW:
  • ORCHID CLASSICS (ORC100127) 3 CD release of all five of Beethoven’s concertos for piano and orchestra features Stewart Goodyear in command of immensely challenging music with never a hint of self-aggrandizement or posturing. With Andrew Constantine superbly helming the BBC Orchestra of Wales, Goodyear lets us know that he is a past master of both the grand gesture and the delicate and intimate, playing with the nobility and intense musicality listeners have come to expect of him. FULL REVIEW:


Stuart Skelton is the best Peter Grimes I have ever heard.

Comparisons are odious, so that I will spare the reader that annoyance. I will merely mention the name of Peter Pears, the original Peter Grimes, flawless in diction, his odd vocal production an acquired taste, but his earnest acting (which can be viewed on You Tube) one of his many assets, with an essentially lyric voice rising up to the Olympian challenges of the role by sheer willpower.

But the role of Peter Grimes, the tormented English fisherman, when taken up by any tenor, even a great dramatic-heroic tenor like Stuart Skelton, is a different kettle of fish. The part lies oddly, often sitting right on the tricky area of the passage from upper middle to high voice, as in the scene with Ellen Orford – the wonderful soprano Erin Wall – in which Britten asks the singer of Grimes to stay forever and a day on the E at the top of the treble staff and sing from piano to forte without competing with or obliterating the work of his partner.

Skelton, who could easily throw caution to the winds and open up at a middle-of-the-road mezzo forte all the time maintains instead a beautiful tone at whatever dynamic level is required. At moments he summons a baritone timbre that he has displayed to advantage in his recently heard Tristan, but at no time there is any evidence of his inflating the sound. In his arioso – In dreams I’ve built and in his soliloquy about the stars above in the pub scene Skelton establishes himself as the finest heroic tenor of his generation: one capable of singing with a true mezza voce and next thunder at full throttle.

And so it goes throughout the two and a half hours musical-dramatic journey that the protean Stuart Skelton shares with a marvelous cast in which baritone Roderick Williams is a rock solid Balstrode. Led by the superb English conductor Edward Gardner the splendid Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus shine in the several interludes that depict the ever changing surrounding seas that mirror the equally fluctuating human emotions that permeate this harrowing story about an odd man out.

This CHANDOS recording of Benjamin Britten’s operatic masterpiece is a treasure and now available to all lovers of great Opera.

First Interlude:

Rafael de Acha


First and upfront let me state this is not going to be a true review. It cannot be on because I cannot provide an objective evaluation of Simone Dinnerstein’s 2017 exquisite recording of two Mozart concerti with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, led by its brilliant young maestro: José Antonio Méndez Padrón.

Were it not for the fact that I am Cuban by birth and Cuban to the core I could possibly turn out an adequate account of what I listened to. But the experience I am trying to describe is intense and not conducive to objectivity.

Hearing one of my favorite concert pianists in the company of some three dozen young and immensely talented Cuban musicians playing Mozart, unarguably my favorite composer, and further, hearing unpredictably fresh, elegant, impassioned performances of the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major and the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major perfectly produced by Tessa Fanelsa and edited, mixed and mastered by Adam Abeshouse, and recorded in Havana’s acoustically perfect 17th century Oratorio San Felipe Neri… well, it all sort of obliterated for the moment my critical acumen.

I know that after repeated listening I will get back on my critical seat and perhaps be able to shed some light on what I heard. What I think is more important than whatever my opinion might be is to get the word out about this recording and its implications about what is happening musically in my birth country.

This music making knows no political barriers. Mozart flawlessly played by an ensemble of young, multi-racial Cuban musicians in a tropical island 90 miles from our shores belies any preconceived misconceptions about Cuba and its culture.

For Simone Dinnerstein making this recording was, as her heartfelt notes so nicely express, among other things a way to reconnect spiritually with her earliest musical mentor: Solomon Mikowsky, a Cuban Jew of Polish descent. For me, listening to this recording has been an intensely emotional way to celebrate part of the culture with which I grew up.

Five years ago my wife and I visited Havana, me for the first time in fifty-seven years, she for the first time ever. While there we heard music played and sung everywhere: Pop music, Cuban jazz, Afro-Cuban music, Classical music. We long to go back once our government will make travel to Cuba legal.

Meanwhile we have a taste of music in Havana thanks to Mozart in Havana, for which a huge Muchas Gracias  goes from my Cuban heart to Sony Records and to Simone Dinnerstein.


Rafael de Acha


During the summer of 1789, Mozart, aged 33, composed his Clarinet Quintet essentially because he wanted to. There was no deadline, no commission, Le nozze di Figaro was behind him and a great success at that, and for the first time in quite a while he was financially stable. Mozart just wanted to write some music for longtime friend Anton Stadler, virtuoso of the then go-to basset clarinet – the grumpy-sounding first cousin to today’s clarinet, with its rumbling four notes below the bottom range of some of the clarinets that came after its time.

Then there was Brahms, who at age 57 felt he was done composing. Just ike Mozart he had no deadline or commission pressing him. His great instrumental works were completed. Success and a comfortable living he had finally achieved after years of hard compositional labor that had earned him the unalienable rights to a happy old age (57 of age was “old” in 1891) and the free and lively pursuit of a dolce far niente in his golden years.

But then Brahms goes to an all-Brahms concert of the sort back then when they mixed the chamber and symphonic repertoires on the same evening and he hears Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Philharmonic play two tours de force for his instrument: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and Weber’s Clarinet Concerto.  Brahms decides right there and then to put retirement on hold and pen to paper and write not one but four works for his new musical idol, with whom he develops a long-distance musical friendship.

Among those works there’s the Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings, Opus 115, now recorded by the Alexander String Quartet with clarinetist Eli Eban on a CD that also features Mozart’s Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings, K.581 being released by Foghorn Classics.

There are times – either times of day or times in which we live – when music can provide healing, induce calm, soothe our troubled hearts, allay our fears, and for a moment dispel our cares. As I sat late one night, and let this music so exquisitely played and shared with us by five formidable artists create its magic, time stopped and all that mattered in that moment was Mozart and Brahms and the Alexander String Quartet and Eli Eban.  

Let me let the insightful liner notes by Eric Bromberger provide all the musicological background needed to accompany this music and let my message of gratitude go to Foghorn Classics, to the Alexander String Quartet, and to clarinetist Eli Eban for providing the healing and soothing and calm this listener was in need of in the midst of the turmoil of this troubled year.

Rafael de Acha



In PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST, a newly released MSR Classics CD, soprano Amy Johnson sings nine selections by eight composers. Ranging from Massenet and Wagner to a surprising sampling of 20th century operatic arias, they span the familiar: the Final Scene from Richard Strauss’ Salome, along with several revelatory excerpts from works by Stephen Schwartz, Anton Coppola, Thea Musgrave, and Robert Livingston Aldridge. There are also a scene from Káťa Kabanová by Leos Janáček, and Arabella’s Mein Elemer from Strauss’ Arabella.

Amy Johnson’s peripatetic career has spanned appearances in European and American Opera houses in a repertoire so wide-ranging that it defies any possible pigeonholing of this fine artist. On the evidence of this recording, Amy Johnson demonstrates her enormous versatility, a gift that allows her to handle both the lyrical, high lying lines of Myra in Stephen Schwartz’ Séance on a Wet Afternoon and the jagged utterances of Manuela in Thea Musgrave’s Simon Bolivar.

With an assured handling of the Spanish of Musgrave’s historical opera, to the Czech of Janáček, to the idiomatic French in her impeccably-vocalized Mirror aria from Massenet’s Thais, to the clearly articulated English of several of the selections, to the German of the selections by Wagner and Strauss, Johnson is at all times in complete command of the text.

Add to her language skills, and to what appears to be a limitless top voice that allows her to climax the Thais aria with a bell-like high D, a rock solid technique earmarked by complete flexibility, steadiness of vocal emission, and a keen instinct for never pushing past the sensible in intensity and volume, and you get a complete singing artist: one that can straddle the lush line of Massenet and the schizophrenic writing Strauss assigned to his bad girl soprano, Salome. And therefore we find cause for celebration.

Steven Mercurio superbly leads the MAV SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA with a gift for the give-and-take that accompanying an opera singer requires. Vernon Hartman contributed his sturdy baritone and his organizational skills to the production of this excellently engineered CD.


The American pianist Simone Dinnerstein has just completed an album recorded in the quiet of her living room, with producer and friend Adam Abeshouse in control of the controls, and Dinnerstein in control of the music-making: three Philip Glass Etudes and Schubert’s rapturous Sonata in B Flat Major, his last, completed in the final year of his all-too-brief life.

Thorough her playing of three of Philip Glass’s Etudes she reveals the seemingly simple beauty of these miniatures with utmost clarity, comfortably embracing the at times deceivingly static nature of these delicate gems. Her Schubert is deeply Romantic, affecting, portraying the music of an ailing young man holding on for dear life to life and trying to continue to make music. To be able to achieve this kind of emotional depth in the playing of a piece of music is awe-inspiring.

This recording reminds me of what I thought LOVE meant after I grew up and life happened: Dinnerstein playing is a loving act of music-making that reminds us all that music is a tool for healing troubled hearts.

Simone Dinnerstein has been keeping quiet. I get it. Many of us have been in desperate need of the sort of quietude that brings about contemplative reflection. But she has been missed. Her return to us is cause for celebration.

Rafael de Acha



At age 51 German tenor Jonas Kaufmann ought to be at the top of his game. By that I mean he should be singing better than ever before. He has survived the rigors of every Wagnerian Heldentenor role and has lived to tell. His repertoire encompasses tenor roles from the lyric to the heroic with mostly good results. His past vocal troubles have caused him to rethink his approach to singing, and on the evidence of his last forays here and abroad he appears to have surmounted them and sung on. But even the sturdiest of voices, even the most successful vocalists must at some point in their careers take stock, rethink, reassess how they want to continue and how long they will carry on.

Now Kaufmann is out with Selige Stunde a new SONY CD containing over two dozen Lieder by Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Strauss, Brahms… mostly the best known ones from the German 18th, 19th, and early 20th century songbooks. There are also a few rarities by Silcher, Carl Bohm, Zemlinsky…standards by Grieg, Dvořák, Tschaikovsky (sic) in German all of them. There’s even a stab at Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen – a song that ought to remain the sole property of mezzo-sopranos or at least singers of any gender with an uncanny gift for floating the voice. And if you don’t know what that means have a listen at any male or female Lieder singer of your choice delivering this extraordinary song.

In tackling this repertory, the usually reliable, often exciting Jonas Kaufmann comes up short. First and foremost, lesser voices have achieved success singing the intimate, narrative miniatures of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss by virtue of the one and essential gift that Jonas Kauffman seems to lack on the evidence of this album: the ability to interpret and bring to life the drama inherent in the words of the poets set to music by these composers. There is but sameness in vocal color, intent and inflexion that track after track of 29 early on grows numbing. Pianist Helmut Deutsch is the stalwart companion through this musical journey.

And then there’s the vocalism itself. Kauffman appears to be tentative in his handling of his large operatic voice and uncertain as to how to approach the ever tricky passage from the middle to the high voice. At times the tenor applies full volume to phrases that should caress, not impress – an example being his handling of the climactic moments in Adelaide. At other times he arbitrarily slides into an easy croon rather than engaging a true mezza voce up and down from start to finish – an example being his Verschwiegene Liebe, Eichendorff’s rapturous elegy to silent love whose silence is broken by Kaufmann’s blunt approach.

The riches of the Lieder repertory should by no means be off-limits to stentorian voices like Kaufmann’s and there is plenty of evidence that other heroic voices have successfully sung and recorded this repertoire. Christa Ludwig comes to mind. Hans Hotter comes to mind. Jon Vickers comes to mind.

The riches of the Lieder repertory should by no means be off-limits to stentorian voices like Kaufmann’s and there is plenty of evidence that other heroic voices have successfully sung and recorded this repertoire. Christa Ludwig comes to mind. Hans Hotter comes to mind. Jon Vickers comes to mind. But 51-year old Kaufman should heed the old Spanish saying “Zapatero a tus zapatos” (“Cobbler stick to your shoes”) and leave this repertory alone.

Selige Stunde:

Rafael de Acha