A TREASURE TROVE OF BAROQUE DELIGHTS with Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst

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

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

The results are splendid.

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

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

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

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

Rafael de Acha

A BEETHOVEN FOR OUR TIMES – Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis

A BEETHOVEN FOR OUR TIMES.

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

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

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

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

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

Rafael de Acha

AMOUR ETERNELLE French and Italian arias featuring EKATERINA SIURINA

DELOS will be releasing on June 19th AMOUR ETERNELLE, an album of French and Italian arias featuring the spectacular EKATERINA SIURINA accompanied by the ever supportive Constantine Orbelian, leading the Kaunas Symphony Orchestra.

I had a chance to listen to a media download of this recording and I highly recommend it.

Ekaterina Siurina is a marvelous singer. Blessed with an angelically pure soprano voice, the ascending Russian star opens her album with a stunning rendition of Depuis le jour, from Carpentier’s Louise. She rises with ease to the climactic moment here and elsewhere  in a perfect Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, which she then follows with a poignantly sung though less familiar Roméo! Qu’as-tu donc?, and a flawless Me voilà seule dans la nuit from Les pêcheurs de perles plus a superb aria of Micaela from Bizet’s Carmen.

Perfectly suited to the French lyric soprano repertory, the young soprano moves easily into the slightly heavier Puccini territory of La rondine, La boheme, Turandot (Liu), and an ethereal Salce from Verdi’ Otello, with stellar partnering by her husband Charles Castronovo.

The album is engineered to the usual perfection of Delos.

JUPITER STRING QUARTET METAMORPHOSIS BEST OF 2020

SnDJEKig.jpegThe Jupiter String Quartet delivers in a new Marquis Classics release a noble performance filled with gravitas that never lapses into self-importance.

One of Beethoven’s favorite quartets, the Op. 131 in C-sharp Minor, is  a late in life work that seems to embody in sound the composer’s ever untiring journey into still-to-be discovered musical territory.

Listening to the opening of the first movement, with the instruments entering one by one, the oneiric image of four persons entering a dense forest at night is brought to mind by the tonal vagueness of the composition. Marked C sharp minor the movement makes the musical path of the players all the more unsettling by laying down dissonance after dissonance that gets slowly and almost reluctantly resolved.

The Jupiter players are masterful at keeping their individuality even while entering the terra incognita of this composition. That entrance marks the beginning of a most unusual creation – a string quartet in seven sections that meld one into the next in at times brooding, later meditative passages that always refuse the players an easy way out of the all-encompassing density. Composed one year before his death at the age of 57, this quartet reveals a soul struggling to make peace with its creator though uncertain of what that might mean.

The second movement – a D major Allegro in 6/8 time that aims to be lively is still imbued with a melancholia that holds back every moment of mirth as if to remind the listener that its brevity is akin to that of our time on this planet: short and eventful. The third movement stuns with its blunt brevity and its tug of war between joy and pain all in the key of B minor.

What follows next is a fourteen-minute musical journey led by the first violin through seven diverse tempi in one key. An Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile segues to a più mosso, an Andante moderato e lusinghiero, an Adagio, an Allegretto, another Adagio, and one more Allegretto.

A restless Presto in Emajor, an Adagio in G sharp minor in ¾ time, and a straightforward, march-like though finally restful return to the original key of c sharp minor bring this monumental work to its precipitous, unsettling end after three quarters of an hour that symbolize the life journey of a human being from cradle to grave.

György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, “Métamorphoses nocturnes.” (Nocturnal Metamorphosis) completes the album with its compellingly harsh 20th century mix of tonal ambivalence contained in seventeen interconnected movements.

Its music calls for muscular playing and chameleonic changes of attack and intention and the Jupiter String Quartet astonishes with its  virtuosic playing and its meticulous musicianship in one of the finest albums this listener has heard thus far in this troubled 2020.

Rafael de Acha

MASSENET’S THAIS

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In Jules Massenet’s Thaïs a monk attempts to convert a courtesan to a life of prayer and penance but discovers too late that his obsession with her is purely erotic. Eventually the courtesan dies while beholding a vision of angels that welcome her to eternal life while the randy monk collapses by her side.

That in roughly sixty words is what Thaïs is all about.

Its 1894 Paris premiere featured some naughty staging for the buxom soprano Sybil Sanderson, who during a suggestive seduction scene had a costume accident that revealed her to the baritone playing the saintly monk and to the opening night’s audience in her altogether.

The pesky censors quickly moved in and spoiled everything by demanding that Massenet excise the salacious scene. What was left until modern productions put the scene back in was a series of tableaux of monks praying, courtesans cavorting and very little drama.

In a recording all we can get is beautiful music while we try not to let our minds wander, and in this lovely recording we are regaled with the lyric soprano Erin Wall and baritone Joshua Hopkins doing all of the hard work. Both are fine artists and both are up against some heavy competition from still available recordings of this Massenet opus.

They fare well: Hopkins’ assured Voilà donc la terrible cité and Wall’s compelling Ô mon miroir fidèle, rassure-moi? are worth the price of the CHANDOS recording, which also features the famous Meditation and a couple of duets: Baigne d’eau tes mains et tes lèvres and a terrific final scene that Massenet has saved all along.

But at that point we have been preached to far too long by the tiresome monks, so much so that even Sir Andrew Davis’ conducting cannot compel us to stay awake much longer.

Rafael de Acha

MASSENET’S DON CEZAR DE BAZAN

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Jules Massenet’s 1872 (revised in 1888) Opéra-comique Don César de Bazan is a charmingly unpretentious affair, chockfull of that which Massenet does best: spinning lovely melodies.

Massenet was a late bloomer, as this lightweight work proves, written when the composer was thirty and actually his first full-length opera.

But catch up Massenet did, writing twenty-nine more works for the stage, among them two unarguably qualifying as masterpieces: Werther and Manon. The libretto is vintage Romantic melodrama, inspired by Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas.

The cast is top notch, with Laurent Naoury (a bass-baritone in reality) courageously tacking the high baritone title role and infusing it with humor. Soprano Elsa Dreisig is a charming Maritana, tenor Thomas Bettinger an elegant King Charles, and the honeyed voice mezzo soprano Marion Lebègue a standout in the trouser role of Lazarille. All four principals evidence the high standards of singing prevalent in French opera today

The haut de gamme Ensemble Aedes and the superb Orchestre des Frivolités Parisiennes are more than ably led by Mathieu Romano, who infuses Gallic panache into the proceedings.

The new NAXOS release is one of three Massenet works coming out this month. Up next Thais and Cendrillon, both of which we look forward to.

Rafael de Acha

PIANO RARITIES BY BEETHOVEN CONTEMPORARIES pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Joseph Johann Baptist Wölfl was an Austrian first rate pianist and also a neglected composer whose Piano Sonata in E Major, Op. 33, No. 3 opens the new and notable CHANDOS album of works by contemporaries of Beethoven. The entire program is played to perfection by pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

A Keyboard Sonata in A Major, Op. 50, No. 1 by the Italian-born English subject Muzio Clementi, whose elegant classicism exerted a significant on Beethoven himself, is next, again played with Gallic insouciance by Bavouzet.

The Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 20 of the Austrian Johann Nepomuk Hummel shows a musical world in transition with one foot of the composer firmly planted in the Classical world of Mozart and Haydn and the other tentatively dipping itself into the turbulent waters of 19th century’s early Romanticism.

I avow no prior familiarity with the name or music of the Czech composer Jan Ladislav Dussek, whose intriguingly-titled Élégie Harmonique is a two-movement piece with an opening Adagio that Bellini or Chopin could have tossed off, and a second-part Allegro that would test any pianist’s interpretive mettle.

Throughout the album, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays elegantly, sensitively, and with rock solid technique.

In an insightful program note, the protean French pianist observes: ‘Just as a mountain peak is always surrounded by other perhaps less lofty but no less fascinating summits, the major works of Beethoven are not isolated rock formations rising from the desert, but, as it were, “Himalayas”, forming part of a range in which other mountains might be the best pieces by contemporaries such as Clementi, Hummel, Dussek, and Wölfl. These composers all knew Beethoven well and were in contact with one another. It is essential to know and to make known their music in order better to understand and more thoroughly appreciate the lingua franca of the music of the time, which in turn is part and parcel of the “spirit of the age”, and to be aware of that which unites them, as well as to recognize that which differentiates them and renders each unique. In this year of plentiful Beethovenian commemorations, it appears to me natural, indeed essential, to pay admiring and enthusiastic homage to these composers, each of whom, in his own way, followed his route to the summit.’

The album is a worthy addition to the music library of anyone fond of the unexpected discovery in music for the keyboard.

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

DUDAMEL LEADS leads the Munich Philharmonic in MAHLER’S RESURRECTION SYMPHONY

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A CMajor/Unitel release [Unitel802808, DVD; 802904; Blu-ray] features as very fine performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” filmed at Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana last year.

Gustavo Dudamel leads the superb Munich Philharmonic and the equally exceptional choirs of Orfeó Català and Cor de Cambra del Palau de la Música Catalana. The splendid vocal soloists are mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and soprano Chen Reiss.

A lengthy composition that runs close to ninety minutes but never overstays its welcome, the five-movement symphony is a mature work to which the composer initially attached a narrative to accompany the music. Mahler later got rid of it but the spirituality of the title and the text of the vocal music from the fourth movement – Urlicht – and the final Die Auferstehung reveal the spirituality behind the music.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford uses her silky voice to good effect in Urlicht and soprano Chen Reiss brings a silvery, shimmering quality to the music and words of Die Auferstehung: “With wings which I have won for myself, In love’s fierce striving, I shall soar upwards To the light which no eye has penetrated!”

Gustavo Dudamel draws a noble performance from his orchestral and choral forces, remarkably conducting the entire score by memory in this treasure of a collector’s item.

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

PIETARI INKINEN LEADS the German Radio Philharmonic in DVORAK’S SIXTH

dvorak In a new installment of the SWR Classic (SWR) series dedicated to Antonin Dvořák’s symphonic works, the German Radio Philharmonic led by the fast rising young Finn Pietari Inkinen, shines with a crystal clear, unmannered approach to the Czech Master’s Sixth Symphony in D Major.

Often referred to as Dvořák’s “first” because of its date of publication, the work shows complete command of the form on the part of its composer along with the quintessentially Czech flavor of so many of Dvořák’s mature compositions.

The classically-structured four-movement symphony has a running time of approximately 45 minutes. Beginning with an optimistic Allegro (https://youtu.be/Kn13TadfVKY) – all sunshine and open fields – the symphony segues to a moody Adagio abundant with unpredictable changes of tone that alternates restless passages in minor tonalities with restful returns to the D major key of the entire work.

Never lacking in inventiveness, the third and shortest of the movements – marked Scherzo – is vintage Dvořák – a lively Furiant with an alternating 2/4 to 3/4 rhythmic pattern that momentarily lets the woodwinds provide a respite before the entire ensemble heads for a big finish. The final Allegro – grand and noble of gesture – allows the orchestra to go full-throttle into a furious climactic ending.

The impeccably-produced and engineered album also contains three intriguing lesser known works: the Hussite Overture and the overtures to Selma Sedlák (The Cunning Peasant) and Vanda.

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

JONAS KAUFMANN AS OTELLO BEST OF 2020

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When it comes to casting the title role of OTELLO there is a long history of missteps and compromises. There’s also the discussion that takes place with the arrival of a new candidate for the killer role of the Moor, with each generation musing on the past glories of the Otello of their youth: Domingo and before him Vickers and before him Del Monaco and before him Vinay and then those of the eras of which our parents and grandparents spoke in awed tones.

As comparisons can often turn odious let us not succumb to comparing the principals of the excellent new SONY release of Verdi’s next to last opera with those of recent memory, as memory almost always turns to be erratic. Let us instead evaluate these formidable singers on their own merits and not by comparing theirs to those of others.

The mere fact of operatic life is that tenors for the role of Otello don’t grow on trees, so that we have to accept whatever we get. And what we get from 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 of a score chockfull of them.

Act II is off to a fine start thanks to Carlos Alvarez’ superb Iago: chillingly venomous, vocally secure, intelligently handling Boito’s text. By the time we get to Otello’s Ora e per sempre Kaufman walks through a vocal mine field that he traverses unscathed. Alvarez always injecting subtlety as in Era la notte saves his vocal arsenal to match Kaufmann decibel by decibel in a stunning Si pel ciel.

The young Italian soprano Federica Lombardi is a marvelous Desdemona, possessing a crystalline voice ideal for the role of the guiltless young wife. Her contribution to the final scene and to the earlier duet with Otello and the Council scene ranks her as a major artist to watch.

The supporting cast is very good, with both mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez a fine Emilia and tenor Liparit Avetysian a better than good Cassio as standouts.

Always supple and at the ready to hold things together while supporting the singers, 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 never better than with Desdemona’s music.

The SONY release ranks for this listener as one for our BEST OF 2020 lineup.

Rafael de Acha http://www.musicnotes.com