Magyar and Romani melancholy

In 2018 a group of Hungarian musicians got together to give a concert in the Grand Hall of Budapest’s Liszt Academy. Guitarist Ferenc Snétberger was joined by bassist Gyula Lázár, and by the Keller Quartet, an ensemble that includes violinists András Keller and Zsófia Környei, violist Gábor Homoki, and cellist László Fenyő.

The goal was to record live for ecm records Hallgató, an album to included music by Snétberger himself, Dimitri Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, and John Dowland. ECM has just released the recording, available  on various platforms, and the results are superb.

Guitarist Ferenc Snétberger is also an accomplished composer of music that straddles both the classical and the jazz and blues worlds. In this instance the highlight of the album is In Memory of My People, a concerto for guitar and orchestra arranged for Snétberger’s guitar and the Keller Quartet by Béla Szakcsi Lakatos.

The music of Snétberger‘s In Memory of My People is infused with the spirit of the composer‘s own Romani background. Snétberger’s intensely emotional composition depicts in three movements the harrowing, moving and ultimately  inspiring journey of the Roma people, whose valiant struggles, heroic survival, and noble triumph throughout centuries of persecution are relived in music at times blunt and fretful, at others profoundly sad , and all throughout melodically tonal, harmonically inventive, and open to the asperities of atonality without fully embracing that sonic world. Above all this is music that moves the listener as it reminds one of the vicissitudes of Snétberger’s paternal and maternal ancestors.

The album is filled with elegant music, some of it by the English lutenist John Dowland – Flow my Teares and I saw my lady weep, some from the mid-to-late 20th century: the neo-Romantic Serenade for Strings of Samuel Barber, and the 20th century modern:  Dimitri Shostakovich’s anguished String Quartet No. 8 in C minor

Two more of Snétberger’s compositions – the utterly melodic and melancholy Rhapsody I for Guitar and Orchestra in a version for guitar and string quintet arranged by Béla Szakcsi Lakatos, and the bluesyYour Smile complete the remainder of the album.

Throughout the album Snétberger and his musical companions play with their hearts on their sleeves and with flawless technical command of their instruments, providing an hour of unalloyed musical pleasures.

Is there a melancholy trait in the soul of the Hungarian and Romani people? Hungarian author László F. Földényi asserts a positive answer to the question, and many others of Hungarian or Roma lineage also claim there is something to the Magyar and to the Romani characters that permeates the music of their peoples with a sad melancholy.

In Ferenc Snétberger’s artistry there is a strongly compelling quality – call it Romani melancholy if one must – that touches deeply the hearts of listeners. If the reader doubts my words just sit and listen to Your Smile, Snétberger’s musical musing on love.

Here’s a teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aiiNaFpg4s&feature=emb_logo

Rafael de Acha         ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Weathering withering music criticism

A recent obit of the late music critic Peter G. Davis in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/19/arts/music/peter-g-davis-dead.html) brought to mind Mr. Davis’  book The American Opera Singer (Random Books, 1997).

The enthusiastic praise by the Times’ Clay Risen: “an exhaustive, exhilarating and often withering history in which he praised the versatility of contemporary American performers while taking many of them to task for being superficial workhorses” caught my interest.

I spent $25 on a paperback copy from Amazon, and after receiving it I eagerly sat down to read it.

Risen’s words – “often withering” – should have raised a red flag. These days my tolerance level for “often withering” critical bitchiness is at an all-time low, and after painfully plowing through the one third of the book that focuses on singers that I have been listening to over the past sixty-plus years, I finally gave up.

Mind you, the book’s back-cover and inside front cover are full of the praise of fellow critics, but I could not find one single recommendation by a singer, conductor, composer, or working musician.

Davis had a nasty way with words, especially when dispensing caustic remarks along the lines of “…her flouncy, braying Carmen was truly vulgar and self-indulgent…” when speaking about mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

When commenting on Leontyne Price’s farewell performance in Aida in 1973, Davis writes: “…few had the nerve to point out that most of Aida’s music was no longer at her command… By then she was reduced to a collection of desperate whoops, careening roller-coaster portamentos, and wild register shifts – once was left with the queasy sensation of Aida sung by a nightclub singer.” Say what?

Anyone who has listened to Price’ O patria mia in that 1973 performance, followed by an ovation that seemingly went on forever would dismiss that statement of Davis as nonsense. Even when meaning to praise, Davis often misses the critical boat by omission or by exaggeration. At one point he speaks of Price as “…the first classically trained black opera singer to attain worldwide stardom.” Did Davis ever hear of Marian Anderson?

But I will spare the reader more. Leonard Bernstein’s famous quip “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen a statue of a critic” kept coming to mind as I encountered few words of unqualified heartfelt praise or, for that matter, a worthy in-depth critical evaluation of those singers who did not make the cut for Davis, instead of backstage gossip, trivia, sarcasm and little else of value.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

À Claude, Benedetto Boccuzzi’s extraordinary debut album

Claude Debussy wrote Images as a set of six compositions for solo piano in two series, each consisting of three pieces. The second series includes three gorgeous miniatures: Cloches à travers les feuilles, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, and Poissons d’or. Each of the three pieces is inspired by things that infuse these delicate compositions with the power to evoke free-associations: bells in a church, moonlight bathing an ancient temple, or fish swimming in a pond. In this respect Debussy’s Images are impressionistic works – much as Debussy loathed the term – which invite the listener to let the imagination roam.

And that freeing up of the mind is exactly what À Claude, Benedetto Boccuzzi’s 2021 extraordinary debut album (DCTT111) for the Italian label Digressione Music brings about.

Featuring a richly executed palette of works by Claude Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Diana Rotaru, and Boccuzzi himself, and now available for worldwide distribution by Milano Dischi/Naxos, À Claude was born as a result of Italian pianist Claudio Boccuzzi’s love of Claude Debussy’s music. The program encompasses both music by Debussy himself and by several of the French master’s spiritual heirs.

Makrokosmos is a collection of short pieces for piano by the American composer George Crumb, from which Boccuzzi chooses six that musically describe the various temperaments of Taurus, Leo, Gemini (twice), and Pisces (twice). The work calls for all sort of techniques from the resourceful Bocuzzi, ranging from plucking of the strings to slamming down massive tone clusters to eliciting overtones from depressed keys not played, to humorously and evocatively quoting Chopin now and then.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus (“Twenty visions of the infant Jesus”) is a suite of 20 pieces for solo piano by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. Deeply spiritual, as is the case with most of this composer’s output, the three miniatures chosen and lovingly played by Boccuzzi range from the delicate Regard de l’étoile and Regard de la Vierge to the surprisingly blunt Regard des hauteurs.

The felicitous pairing of Debussy to Crumb to Messiaen – musical and aesthetic comrades –  continues in this varied album with the addition of two names, one well known – Toru Takemitsu – one lesser known – the Rumanian Diana Rotaru, whose 2007 Debumessquisse salutes Debussy with imaginative wit. Takemitsu in turn states his own musical idea with Les yeux clos II (“With closed eyes”) and then salutes Messiaen with Rain tree sketch to both of which Boccuzzi brings non-pareil pianistic resourcefulness. Most impressively the protean Benedetto Boccuzzi brings his own exquisite arrangement of two Debussy Dances for harp and orchestra to joyously end this memorable debut album.

Where to find the CD?

on www.digressionemusic.it

on www.benedettoboccuzzi.com/links

and on most all digital platforms

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

WEST SIDE SORRY

When Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 he had already composed three Broadway shows: On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and Candide (1956).

With the presence of a trio of zanies: Nancy Walker, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, and George Abbott (director) and Jerome Robbins (choreographer) On the Town delivered theatrical magic by spades. So did Wonderful Town succeed, primarily thanks to the presence of Rosalind Russell as the comical Ruth.

Less than a year after the failure of Candide, West Side Story opened on Broadway. There was no formula being reapplied by Bernstein or by a creative team that included director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, book writer Arthur Laurents, and a new kid on the block, Stephen Sondheim as lyricist. The cast was made up of near-unknowns brimming with talent. The show opened to raves from Walter Kerr in the New York Times and a slew of Valentines from just about every critic from the printed press.

One would think that Bernstein would have left well enough alone after a splendid original cast recording was made with Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera in the leads. But the story of music is full of ill-conceived efforts.

Bernstein somehow believed that West Side Story could indeed be considered an opera. In what he and the recording’s producers hoped would be the definitive recording of the work, a cast of Opera stars was assembled to record the work in 1984. Bad idea!

Despite their uptown vocal pedigree or more likely because of the participating stars’ inability to capture the right way to deliver Bernstein’s score with the right mix of raw power and the appropriate sound for their roles, the combination of Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, José Carreras as Tony, Tatiana Troyanos as Anita, Kurt Ollmann as Riff, and Marilyn Horne as the offstage voice who sings “Somewhere” proved to be deadly.

The recording sessions readily available for listening on You Tube, were by and large a disheartening affair, with an impatient, hand-wringing, chain-smoking Bernstein dealing sarcastic quips and snarky comments to many of the participants in the sessions, most of all Carreras, who Bernstein managed to tie into knots with his very own brand of unwarranted sarcasm. Strangely, it is the Spanish tenor who consistently delivers the most beautiful sound in the entire cast.

Kiri Te Kanawa’s full-throated, lyric-spinto sound is better suited to Strauss and Verdi heroines than to the part of a Juliet-like Puerto Rican teenager. Worst of the lot Tatiana Troyanos as Anita comes off as an overbearing termagant sporting a cringe-inducing Puerto Rican accent. Kurt Ollmann as Riff is a non-entity. Even Marilyn Horne’s Somewhere does not begin to obliterate memories of the angelic sound of Reri Grist in the original cast recording.

The road to musical theatre hell is paved with the ego-driven intentions of many in the recording industry. The 1984 recording of West Side Story is one such journey.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Not silver bullet solutions but ideas for the survival of the arts

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is oip-4.jpg

Towards the end of February and nearly a year after the pandemic radically changed the way we live, work, go to school, and socialize we went over the half-million deaths mark in our country. Some sources estimate that it will not be until 2022 that we will begin to see substantial changes in the way we conduct out lives. For those of us who live and breathe the arts in all forms: visual, performing, live, recorded, be it as practitioners or as audience members, the facts of life we now face are sobering at best, frightening at their worst.

Questions persist. Will we again be able to go to a movie with friends and sit in a darkened room with countless others watching a great film on a large screen? Or will we be indefinitely limited to sit in our living rooms watching our favorite flicks on small screens and listening to the dialogue through small speakers?

Will we again be able to go to a concert hall to watch and listen to four big-voiced soloists and a huge chorus blow us away with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth? Or will we have to content ourselves with listening to a CD of (fill in the name of your go-to orchestra and conductor) as we sit on our favorite recliner?

Will we again be able to thrill to the sound of Verdi’s Aida sung by a big-voiced soprano surrounded by a cast of hundreds (including elephants) or will we have to settle for listening again to the great Leontyne Price recording? Nobody knows the answer to that and other similar questions about concerts and operas and movies and ballets and art exhibits.

But it is fair to ask of our arts institutions the burning question: what are they planning to do to preserve the art forms they cultivate and promote from disappearing?

Reinvention is called for. Fleet-footed flexibility is in order. And imagination is most needed now. In the midst of this catastrophic state of affairs the nimble and agile will live to tell. New sources of income will have to be found. Streaming of performances will take the place of live ones. Outdoor spaces during the late Spring and Summer and early Fall can be put at the service of our arts organizations, even if it means a seven-month April to October Opera or theatre season in which fewer productions are given in a European-style “seasonal” format rather than in the American repertory one, thus reducing the staggering costs of mounting many productions every season.

The reliable subscription audience will gradually have to make room for the one-off attendee. Ticket prices will have to be lowered to accommodate the many who cannot afford to pay the exorbitant prices that a ticket to the Opera or a Broadway show now cost. Perhaps three repeats of the same concert program times the number of concert programs per season will begin to equal the same number of services for the musicians in an orchestra.

The unions will have to come to the negotiating table with management and find ways to help their constituencies survive the exigencies of the times in which we live and work for a common goal good to artists and managements and audiences.

These are not silver bullet solutions but ideas- some maybe good, some perhaps not – that will hopefully begin to pave the way forward for the arts to  flourish and not perish in 21st century America. Or so we hope.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

A recitalist of whom to take notice

In an introduction to her enchanting song recital program on ALPHA, Belgian soprano Jodie Devos writes: ‘…This programme reflects a personal journey: I am Belgian, I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and now I live in France. I wanted to present composers from these three countries, taking as my cornerstone the English song repertory and the English language. “

Beautifully accompanied by Nicholas Krüger, the Belgian soprano sings her way through a brace of relatively well-known gems by Frank Bridge, Roger Quilter, and Benjamin Britten, along with rarities by Darius Milhaud, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Irene Poldowski, William Walton, Ivor Gurney, Germaine Tailleferre and others.

Jodie Devos’ lyric-coloratura soprano voice serves this high-lying music to perfection, with utmost ease in the upper range, impeccable legato, and flawless diction in both the English and French selections. In addition, her musicality and taste define her as a recitalist of whom to take notice.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Celebrating Piazzolla on Azica Records

Due to its location in the lower region of the Southern hemisphere the seasons in Argentina come at the exact opposite from ours, so that their summer is our winter and our winter their summer.

Whether this inverse order of the weather might have anything to do with the emotionally charged music of Astor Piazzolla’s Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas one can only guess, but, as one listens to the Invierno Porteño section of this wondrous work, the listener is carried away by the rapturous central melody of the anything but chilly Argentine winter soulfully played by the Neave Trio as if violinist Anna Williams, cellist Mikhail Veselov, and pianist Eri Nakamura had all-three been born on the shores of Buenos Aires’ River Platte

The music of Piazzolla has deservedly had much recognition and play, and his Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas has been played by everybody from Yo-Yo-Ma on the cello to any number of pianists, violinists, and instrumental ensembles.

Yet, any artists who bring something new to this music are to be welcomed with open arms. Such is the case with the estimable Neave Trio, that in the 2018 release of Celebrating Piazzolla on Azica Records featuring new arrangements of Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas and of several intriguing songs of Piazzolla idiomatically sung by mezzo-soprano Carla Jablonski. Their music-making make this wonderful album absolutely indispensable.

For more information, visit www.neavetrio.com.

Rafael de Acha                       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

TWO NEW CD RELEASES FOR MARCH

Newly arrived from SOMM we welcome a wonderful album that features British pianist Peter Donohoe playing five works for the keyboard in Mozart: Piano Sonatas, Volume 4.

This new gem from this artist’s ongoing survey of the Salzburg master’s piano works includes the Sonata No.1 in C major, K279; the Sonata No.5 in G major, K283; the Minuet in D major, K355; the Allegro in G minor, K312, and the Sonata No.12 in F major, K332.

Recorded in 2018 at the Royal Conservatory in Birmingham on a Bechstein D282 grand with Paul Arden-Taylor peerlessly engineering the session, the new CD, insightfully annotated by Christopher Morley and just now being released is a special gift to aficionados of piano playing in the grand manner by a master of the keyboard.

In The Great Violins Volume 4 the music of the lesser known 17th century Austrian violinist and composer Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr is heard in the CD The Great Violins, Vol. 4.

Playing a 1629 Amati violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved guides the listener on a musical journey through six partitas for solo violin titled as a collection Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera. The unique sound of the Amati is perfectly captured in the athene recording which includes exhaustive information on the composer and his works.

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Alceste

Due to the restrictions Gluck imposed on his own work in a 1779 preface to the published score of Alceste, he paved the way for Opera to transition from the Baroque operas of his predecessors to the achievements of Mozart.

In his famous preface Gluck stipulated among several do’s and don’ts, no vocal embellishments, exclusively syllabic setting of the text, blurring the difference between aria and accompanied recitative, and no textual repeats.

Ironically, Mozart effected a major transition from the excesses of Baroque Opera while still putting to work many of the devices Gluck had fought against, including repeats, vocal embellishments, and separation of secco recitatives from arias and ensembles.

In Alceste Gluck took Calzabigi’s libretto based on Alkestis, a tragedy by Euripides about a Queen willing to give her life to save her husband’s, and wrought a stage work long in longueurs and short on truly inspired music. Other than the title character’s aria Divinités du Styx, one is hard put to think of another truly memorable moment in this 135 minute-long, three-act opera.

In the UNITEL/Cmajor CD, Dorothea Roschmann undertakes the title role with mixed results. The German soprano, a notable Lieder singer and recognized interpreter of light-lyric roles on which she has built an international career, here tries on for size the role of the tragic Queen of Thessaly.

The role of Alceste, long associated with large-voiced dramatic sopranos the likes of Maria Callas, Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell, Leyla Gencer, and, more recently, Jessye Norman, and Christine Brewer taxes the voice of Roschmann, now an older singer in her mid-fifties and well past the prime of a light-voiced soprano.

The role of King Admète is relegated by Gluck into a supporting one that does not appear until act two. Once he does show up, the American tenor Charles Castronuovo does a fine job with what little Gluck gives him to work with.

The Regieoper production by Antwerp-based choreographer Sidi Larki Cherkaoui comes off as portentously pretentious, with dance sequences that sport a largely-derivative kinetic vocabulary redolent of the work of fellow Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, along with sequences replete with much arm wiggling and meaningless still poses.

Ultimately the entire proceedings comes off as endlessly repetitive and unable to contribute anything to the driving forward of the story, notwithstanding the fine conducting of Antonello Manacorda at the helm of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

The Bayerische Staatsoper 2019 production of the 1776 Paris (French language) version of Gluck’s Alceste is now available as a single CD.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

A musical message from Japan

Toshio Hosokawa is a composer of contemporary classical music whose aesthetic is informed by classical Japanese culture. Momo Kodama is a classical pianist with a commitment to divulge works by contemporary Japanese composers. Seiji Ozawa is known for his advocacy of modern composers and for his work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which he led for 29 years. These three artists came together in 2006 to record two works of great significance to all three of them: W.A. Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Major, No. 23, and Toshio Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight.

Leading his own Mito Chamber Orchestra, the Japanese maestro gave the world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight, a one-movement concerto with Momo Kodama as soloist. The German label ECM has recently announced the re-release of the 14-year old recording, straightforwardly engineered by Yoshinori Yishiwaki and Suenori Fukui in an ECM recording soon to be available on various platforms.

Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight is an intriguingly compelling work whose harmonic and melodic traits reveal both European and Japanese roots. At all times Hosokawa’s exquisite composition is ineffably Eastern in its economy of means, noble in its intentions, and rich in its depiction of the birth and life of a lotus flower that rises out of the water to embrace the moonlight and the universe beyond.

Momo Kodama is the soloist in both Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight and in Mozart’s beloved A Major, K. 488 concerto.

The Allegro that opens the 1786 composition reflects Mozart’s state of mind at the time: he was a happy man, piano soloist in this and two other concertos, his Le Nozze di Figaro was about to open in Prague. But then a doleful F# minor middle movement follows as a revelation of the spiritual conflict that ever lived in Mozart’s soul. Then a third movement Allegro  (Italian for both lively and happy) is both lively in speed and happy in spirit, episodic in nature, calling for elegance and suppleness of execution, all of which the protean Momo Kodama joyfully delivers with the beloved maestro Ozawa as an elegant partner at the helm of the sterling Mito Chamber Orchestra.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS