Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax play with hope amid tears

Sony Classical is releasing Hope Amid Tearsa recording of Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano. In the album Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax play all five of Beethoven’s  sonatas for cello and piano in addition to three sets of variations for cello and piano.

In 1809 Beethoven sent a copy of a recently-completed sonata to his friend Ignaz von Gleichenstein with the note in Latin “Inter lacrimas et luctum” (“Amid tears and grief”), an oblique commentary on the state of Vienna in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, a time that coincided with Beethoven’s despondency over his worsening deafness and his despair over his personal life.

Emanuel Ax writes:  “His mastery of musical craft was second to none, of course, but it is his indomitable spirit in the face of personal tragedy that makes him unique. In this period of world-wide unease, grief, and suffering, it is perhaps fitting that we are also celebrating the 250th birthday of the composer who represents what is best in our humanity.”

The album includes the Sonata No.1 in F Major, Op. 5 No. 1; the Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2; the Sonata No.3 in A Major, Op. 69; the Sonata No.4 in C Major, Op. 102 No.1; the Sonata No.5 in D Major, Op. 102 No. 2; the 7 Variations on “Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen”; the 12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus;  and the 12 Variations in F major on “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen.”

It is well known how Beethoven can traverse changing moods that fluctuate from the meditative to the melancholy to the joyful to the contemplative to the achingly sad to music in which sudden gleams of hope are tinged with joy.

Even more remarkable it is to hear two towering artists capable to penetrate the depths of this music and then share it with the listener without a hint of grandstanding or egotism. Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax give us in this remarkable recording a heartfelt and insightful interpretation of several works by Beethoven at a time when music this noble is very much needed.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS


It often happens to me when reviewing a newly-released operatic DVD of a familiar opera that I find myself skipping from set number to set number. I do this to fight off annoyance with the mindless capriciousness of stage directors as they inflict damage on the great works of the standard repertoire.

That was not the case as I sat and watched with delight all four acts of Bizet’s Carmen in a recent Naxos release of a superb 2009 Opera Comique production staged by the English director Adrian Noble and led by his compatriot, Sir John Elliot Gardiner helming the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir.

At the front and center of this fine staging is the estimable soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, not quite fifty back then and still at the peak of her powers. The Italian singer delivers here a ferocious performance, exquisitely sung and full of volatility, mystery, and seductiveness.

The cast, ranging from the achingly vulnerable Micaela of Anne Catherine Gillet to the vocally and dramatically first-rate Don José of Andrew Richards, to the elegant Escamillo of Nicolas Cavallier is impeccable. A terrific ensemble of Opera Comique regulars – Virginie Fachon, Annie Gill, Francis Dudziak, and Vincent Ordonneau as the smugglers – and Riccardo Novaro as Morales and Matthew Brook as Zuniga, are note-perfect.

What is most remarkable about the entire ensemble, from the leads to the singers in the supporting roles is the total commitment to the assignment: the handling of the spoken dialogue, the detailed acting, and, above all, a respect for the dynamic markings specified by Bizet.

In the Micaela- Don José and later in the Flower Song, Andrew Richards scales down his sizeable voice to great effect, spinning out a ravishing voix mixte that serves the music, as the singer sets aside any vocal grandstanding. At other times Anna Caterina Antonacci avoids any cheap effects and gratuitous optional notes, singing exactly what Bizet prescribed.

The Monteverdi Choir looks like real denizens of Seville, dressed in authentic garb designed by set and costume designer Mark Thompson, and singing gloriously. Sir John Elliot Gardiner obtains stupendous playing from the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique all the while being the ideal singers’ conductor.

The Opera Comique holds under nine hundred patrons, a perfect-size house for the many middle-weight lyric voices that make life-long careers in that theatre, an ideal venue for Bizet’s Carmen.

Rafael de Acha                  All About the Arts

Lisette Oropesa sings Mozart

In her solo debut album for Pentatone, Ombra Compagna, Lisette Oropesa sings ten arias, some written by Mozart for inclusion in operas by fellow composers in need of musical assistance. Others were conceived by the composer as stand-alone concert arias, rather than operatic pieces. In almost every instance these arias provided the singers for whom they were written with vocal challenges that allowed them to display their technical equipment. The music demands agility, perfectly executed trills, a secure top range, the necessary breath control to spin long phrases, and the evenness in registers to execute enormous leaps from above the staff to the lowest register of the soprano voice.

Who were these singers? They were working professionals like Aloysia Weber, and Louisa Viileneuve, some were gifted amateurs like Countess Maria Josepha von Paumgarten. Some starred in operas by Mozart and by lesser luminaries like Sarti, Jommelli, Martín y Soler, and Anfossi. Others, like Josepha Duschek, were concert singers who rarely appeared on stage. All of them undoubtedly possessed formidable techniques.

The texts of these arias were provided by some of the finest lyric poets of their time, including Pietro Metastasio, Carlo Goldoni, and Lorenzo Da Ponte, and they range from the tragic and heroic Ah! Lo previdi, to the lighthearted Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!; Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia, and Voi avete un cor fedele.

Throughout the ten selections in the album, the gifted soprano Lisette Oropesa dazzles with her secure negotiation of the many technical hurdles facing the singer who takes on this repertory. Her bright and often plangent vocal timbre coupled to a crystal-clear understanding of the words’ emotional import makes for a most pleasurable hour of listening.

The singer is superbly accompanied by Il pomo d’oro led by Antonello Manacorda.


Atmospheric Music from Spain

Spanish Jews have called their former homeland in the Iberian peninsula Sepharad and themselves Sephardim, and Joaquin Rodrigo chose to name one of his compositions Dos pequeñas fantasias (Two Little Fantasies) finding inspiration in Sephardic music.

¡Qué buen caminito! (What a nice little road) and Ecos de Sefarad (Echoes of Sepharad) evidence much of what is multi-cultural and what enriches Spanish music.

Elsewhere in the delightful Naxos album Joaquín Rodrigo Guitar Music, Vol. 3 (8.574004) the listener is treated to the quintessential Rodrigo sound in Elogio de la guitarra, Tríptico, Dos preludios, Sonata a la española, and El álbum de Cecilia

Elegantly lyrical, hauntingly evocative, Romantic to its core, Rodrigo’s music is redolent of an intensely atmospheric Spain, and is here nobly played with intense musicality by the gifted Turkish-American guitarist Celil Refik Kaya.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

Remembering Italo Tajo (April 25, 1915-March 28, 1993)

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In the fall of l966, I was back for my second year at Juilliard.  One Saturday, as I was leaving the New York Public Library at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, I approached the entrance to the Seventh Ave. IRT, and stopped at a newsstand.  My eyes fixed on a small English magazine, Opera.   Hoping to buy it, I reached in my pocket to be sure I had a subway token.  No such luck.  I didn’t have enough money for it and the subway, so I picked it up for a quick look.  In a section called something like “Who, What, When and Where” the name of Italo Tajo jumped off the page.

I then read a notice announcing that Italo Tajo, a singer I greatly admired, had been appointed to head the Opera Department at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.   I dug into my pocket and pulled out the one dollar I had, bought the magazine and headed uptown on foot.  At age 23, I was not fazed by the prospect of walking the 80 + uptown blocks to Claremont Avenue, near Broadway and 122nd Street, where I lived at International House, across from the Juilliard School’s old location.

The brisk autumn air and the walk gave me clarity and time to thinkIn spite of the training I was receiving, and the gratitude I felt for being in such a prestigious school, I had often found myself fighting depression and loneliness.  New York was cold and grey and I felt isolated.   By the time I finished dinner and got to bed that night I had resolved to somehow get to Cincinnati to study with Italo Tajo.

Early the following Monday I telephoned the College-Conservatory of Music and the operator connected me to the desk of Martha Moore.  In her charming Southern accent, she informed me that the school would be holding its annual New York auditions the following week, and asked if I would like to have an audition appointment. 

“I would like that very much,” I replied.

The following week I went to the Baldwin Piano Studios in New York and sang for two people:  Dean Jack Watson and the vocal coach Robert K. Evans, who accompanied me as I sang the same two arias which had been my lucky ticket to Juilliard two years before. After I sang I was interviewed by Dean Watson.  He first asked why in the world I would want to leave Juilliard where I had a “full-ride” scholarship, half-way through my second year.  My answer was straightforward.  I wanted to study with Italo Tajo.   I thanked him and Mr. Evans for their time, and left. 

The acceptance letter came a week later.  I would be the recipient of a full-tuition scholarship and a living stipend, for room and board. 

The Italian opera star turned Maestro was in his mid-fifties when I met him. Maestro Tajo had had an international career, singing leading and supporting bass roles in every major opera house in Europe and in the United States.  He had made his debut at age 20, singing of all things, Fasolt in Wagner’s Das Rheingold—years before most basses appear in a leading role.  At the time when most male singers would have been in their prime, he had already lived through a 35 year career of constant singing on large stages, and the fast pace had taken a toll on his vocal health.

When I met him for the first time, I was taken aback by his physical appearance.  In photographs, the Maestro had the dashing looks of a movie star, but he was now suffering from severe gout, looked thin and appeared much older than 53. He walked aided by a cane. But what I saw that day did in no way dampen my enthusiasm or admiration. If anything, it increased my respect for an artist who was still forging ahead and had a lifetime of experience to share.  We spoke in Italian, and, within days I became Tajo’s translator-interpreter-assistant and, after meeting his wife, Inelda, I was welcomed as a member of their extended family of students.

Cincinnati agreed with the Maestro, and by the end of that first year, he was standing upright, surrounded by his admiring students, looking vibrant and years younger.  And, it wasn’t long before James Levine, another Cincinnatian, spotted him and lured him back to the Metropolitan Opera, where Tajo enjoyed a new version of his career, singing character roles to the delight of MET audiences.  He continued to do that for several years, but he never lost his love for teaching and directing at CCM.

Italo Tajo’s career was interesting and diversified. While he did take on some of the “big” bass parts – Mephistopheles, King Phillip, Attila – he was at his best in comic roles to which he could bring his acting skills: Mozart’s Figaro and Leporello, Donizetti’s Dulcamara and Don Pasquale, and Rossini’s Don Basilio. And he knew when to say no to a part for which he felt unsuited. He once shared with me how on a cruise ship on a transatlantic crossing Toscanini asked him to sing the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff. Tajo thanked the conductor saying he could not accept his kind offer, as the baritone role lay too high for him.

Italo Tajo was a great singing actor for whom mere good vocalism could never be a substitute for the sum total of the singing actor’s skills. For his artistry and for his generous and nurturing mentorship he lives in the collective memory of many of us who were so fortunate to get to work with him.

Here are several You Tube links of Tajo’s singing. Enjoy.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

Leif Ove Andsnes plays Mozart

In the all-Mozart Sony Classical CD Mozart Momentum 1785, the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes plays three of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, in addition to the Fantasia in C Minor, and the Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477. He has as his collaborators the 45-member Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The album is a celebration of the years 1785 and 1786, a time when Mozart wrote some of his greatest music for the piano, including three of his greatest piano concertos, reinventing as he went along the very rules of composition for keyboard and orchestra, which later became a foundation for the works for piano by Beethoven.

This album is an essential addition to the libraries of Mozart devotees.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

A classic for our time

Interesting how one’ perceptions of any one composer change with the passing of time. In my youth I always found Brahms’ music portentous and heavy-handed. Was it callow immaturity? No doubt!

Now older and hopefully a bit wiser I openheartedly welcome the music of the master of Hamburg, in no small part thanks to András Schiff, a protean artist who has unflappably navigated the quiet musical waters of Bach and the often turbulent ebb and tide of Beethoven, Schubert and Janáček with equal skill and brilliance.

Aided by the conductor-less Orchestra of the Enlightenment, the Hungarian-born, Austro-British pianist is again reunited with fifty musical soul-mates. Playing on an 1859 Bluthner, Schiff summons a whole world of nuanced sonorities from the superb instrument: majestic in the opening of the Concerto No 1 in D minor, lyrically delicates in the Adagio, supple in the final Rondo

Equally at home in the Bb, opus 83 – Brahms’ second and equal in duration to his first – has an even grander, four movement construct which Andras Schiff delicately portrays with chamber music intimacy notwithstanding the wrongheaded notion that this no concerto but a symphony with piano accompaniment.

The Orchestra of the Enlightenment, uncannily much like the one that premiered much of Brahms’ music, exemplary responds, questions, answers, comments, and supports the soloist, sharing the musical tasks as elegantly as one could possibly imagine.

The ECM CD (32690) is available as a hard copy or as a download. Neatly engineered and accompanied by an informative booklet, this recording will surely become a classic for our time.

Rafael de Acha        All About the Arts

Verdi Requiem in a dynamic DYNAMIC release

Dedicated to the victims of Covid 19 and to all the volunteers who tended to their needs, and given in a socially distanced setting for its chorus, soloists, orchestra, and audience of masked participants, the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini and the chorus of Parma’s Teatro Regio led by Roberto Abbado deliver a powerhouse performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1874 masterwork.

Impeccably recorded by Marco Scalfi in a September 2020 performance, the video-recording features in its sterling quartet of soloists, soprano Eleonora Burato, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, tenor Giorgio Berruci, and bass Roberto Tagliavini. Each of them and the superb Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini and the chorus of Parma’s Teatro Regio own just more than a moment throughout the approximately ninety minutes of the CD’s playing time that follows a spoken introduction and a minute of silence that commemorates the dead.

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

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

The quartet of soloists performs with formidable vocalism and exquisite musicality. Tenor Giorgio Berrugi sings his Ingemisco with a perfect balance of delicacy and squillo. Roberto Tagliavini uses his fine lyric bass voice to perfection in the ensembles and shines in an earth-shaking Confutatis. Mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili brings a perfect mix of stunning power and calming lyricism to her singing, and soprano Eleonora Burato offers gorgeous pianissimo high notes, the perfect Italianate spinto sound, and solid musicianship in all of her participation.

Roberto Abbado elicits a noble performance from all his forces infused with perfect balance, unmannered tempi, and sensitive attention to the soloists.

The 37895 DVD is available on the Dynamic label.

Bravo tutti!

Rafael de Acha     All about the arts

Cav and Pag backstage

In Robert Carsen’s utterly confusing two-in-one production of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana one will not find a trace of authentic Italian verismo. Instead the viewer will be subjected to a confusing post-modern take on both Leoncavallo’s blood and guts tale of a crime of passion in a Calabrian village around 1865, and Giovanni Verga’s masterful slice of 19th century small-town Sicilian life. Even after reading stage director Carsen’s lengthy notes on the why and wherefore of his interpretation, I could not come away with a clear idea of his directorial intentions. As the old theatrical saying goes, “Show me, don’t tell me.”

Carsen sets both Cav and Pag in a meta-theatrical limbo where we are never sure of what we are watching. Is it acting or is it real? And, for that matter, does any of it matter? The production, conflating both operas into a single act of numbing length is theatrically self-referential, with scenes of backstage drama, choristers dressing up and putting on make-up, theatrical rivalries, and on and on, full of gimmicks but sorely lacking in logic.

The entire fiasco calls for survival of the fittest among the cast of ten. Coming out unscathed and not terribly embarrassed are soprano Aylin Perez, currently on leave from the lighter lyric roles of her past, and sounding good as an oversexed Nedda. The men in Pagliacci are a mixed lot – tenor Brandon Jovanovich a tad light for the heroic outbursts of Canio, baritone Roman Burdenko a rough around the edges Tonio, but baritone Mattia Olivieri a dramatically and vocally first-rate Silvio.

In the second half of the ill-conceived evening, tenor Brian Jagde sings an acceptable Turiddu, and baritone Roman Burdenko fares better than he did in Pagliacci as the jealous Alfio. But it is the force of nature Santuzza, sung by the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili the one character who dominates the cast of Cavalleria Rusticana. In a role that she already owns along with just about anything she cares to sing, the Armenian star rules the day and her colleagues gamely cede her center stage.

The Naxos release of the Dutch National Opera 2019 production is nicely conducted by Lorenzo Viotti, an artist who knows just how Italian Opera should sound.

Rafael de Acha         All About the Arts

Bohemians in a bad mood

Marcello (baritone Andrzej Filoncsyk) appears to be in a rotten mood. Rodolfo – the wonderful tenor Charles Castronovo – seems to be sad about something or other. These bohemians seem to be a bit too stressed by hunger, poverty, and cold to have any fun even before tragedy strikes. Colline (Peter Kellner) does not seem to bring any positive changes to the darkness on stage. Not until the entrance of Schaunard – the gifted baritone Guyla Nagy – do things begin to lighten up.

Throughout the first moments of Act I, humor seems to be neither in sight nor within earshot, and the flatness and drabness of the set – an attic devoid of any of the things that bohemians seem to accumulate in their living quarters – forces the singers to face straight out at the camera in a park and bark fashion, dampening any semblance of natural behavior.

The proceedings improve when Mimi (Sonya Yoncheva) comes knocking, asking Rodolfo to light her candle. The enchantment of the encounter between these two lonely people flows dramatically and musically, with Charles Castronovo delivering a flawless Che gelida manina, and Sonya Yoncheva replying with an equally lovely Mi chiamano Mimi.

With the duet that follows, the singers triumph over arbitrary production design and directorial capriciousness, although Act II threatens to send things south with the ham-fisted acting of the utterly vulgar Musetta of Simona Mihai, who caps the ending of her waltz by removing her knickers in plain view of the entire Café Momus crowd and thrusting them in Marcello’ face.

The invernal sadness of Act III is better served by stage director Richard Jones’ approach, with Sonya Yoncheva’s poignant farewell to Rodolfo and their ensuing duet both touching in their honesty.

The inexplicable directorial choices continue in Act IV: no easel for Marcello, who is asked to mime painting on a non-existent canvas situated in mid-air, thus qualifying the singer for a Marcel Marceau award. One kept waiting to see what solution the stage director would find for Mimi’s deathbed. Ah, yes… a blanket on the floor.

As we have grown to expect, the Opus Arte issue is top notch, with the Royal Opera House Orchestra doing sterling musical work, led by Emmanuel Villaume in a solidly idiomatic reading of Puccini’s score.

When left to their own devices, singers resort to whatever they know in order to survive directorial absurdities. Kudos go to Sonya Yoncheva and Charles Castronovo for saving the ending of the opera by means of glorious singing and straightforward dramatic commitment. But I do wish them better luck next time with whoever directs them.

Rafael de Acha        All About the Arts