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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cosmic Oceans: A Buyer's Guide to Bruckner

Anton Bruckner appears on Austria's 1,000-schilling note.
Start listening to the mighty symphonies of Anton Bruckner and you'll notice two things immediately. One: these are big slow moving works, infused with the composer's rapt religious convictions. They're practically church music. Two, given the massive size of their individual movements, you've now moved into what's considered the "deep end" of 19th century symphonic repertory.
Here's a swimmer's guide to the cosmic oceans of sound: Bruckner's symphonies.

Gunther Wand
The Günter Wand Cycle
This excellent set of the nine numbered symphonies (Wand leaves out the '00' and '0' works) is available in an old-fashioned "doorstop box" from RCA Red Seal. Wand had a long podium career, and became a Bruckner specialist later in his career. His Cologne-based orchestra is quite good, with above-average horns and woodwind. But the selling point here is the conductor's devotion to the absolute letter of Bruckner's scores. This set is a good starting point.

The George Tintner Naxos Cycle
Although he was battling cancer at the time, the late George Tintner made a landmark cycle of Bruckner symphonies. He coaxed great performances from a series of obscure orchestras. This super-budget set includes the, proving that you didn't have to have a big name to play great Bruckner. The set includes Symphony No. 0 (Die Nullte) and the even rarer Symphony No. 00, which Bruckner rejected as being a mere student work.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
cond. by Bernard Haitink; cond. by Riccardo Chailly
Two excellent cycles from the great Dutch orchestra, each featuring a fine conductor. Haitink recorded complete cycles of most of the major symphonists. Under his baton, one hears the classic Concertgebouw sound, a certain mellow orchestral quality that is difficult to duplicate anywhere else. Chailly's set is in more modern digital sound, and showcases this great orchestra under more fiery leadership. His cycle also includes the best performance of "Die Nullte" on this list.
Sergiu Celibidache
Berlin Philharmonic
cond. by Eugen Jochum; cond. by Herbert von Karajan; cond. by Daniel Barenboim
The Berliners cement their reputation as one of the world's top orchestras with these three fine cycles. Jochum is brisk and no-nonsense. His cycle is like Wand's, close to the letter of the text and a sturdy presence in the CD catalogue for years. Karajan is very comfortable in this music and takes a relaxed Romantic approach. These Berlin recordings are better than his later "Karajan Gold" recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The more recent Barenboim recordings (his second complete cycle of the symphonies--the first has been deleted) are the most idiosyncratic, with odd decisions in matters of tempo and dynamic. Still, the Berlin forces play their hearts out, and it is interesting to hear Barenboim puts his unique stamp on each symphony.

The Recordings of Sergiu Celibidache
Special mention must be made of this maverick Romanian conductor. Like Wand, Celibidache was a Bruckner specialist. However, unlike most conductors, Celibidache did not believe in making recordings. Luckily his family preserved tapes of radio broadcasts of some of his performances. These were released after his death in a series of issues on EMI and Deutsches Grammophon. These are not complete cycles, (Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 are missing, and the DG set omits No. 6 as well) but the performances are moving and in most cases, super-slow. Not the best first performances to own, but these are favorites of Bruckner devotees.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Opera Review: Frozen Ghost

Hamlet at the Washington National Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Act III of Hamlet as it appeared in the Kansas City production.
The Washington National Opera closed out its 2010 season with a brilliant staging of Hamlet, the French adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy by composer Ambroise Thomas. Recent years have led to a rediscovery of this opera, with its tour de force aria for Ophélie and powerful, baritone title role.

Thaddeus Strassberger's production (updated from its first appearance at the Kansas City Opera) sets the play behind the Iron Curtain, in a chilly, snow-swept Denmark crushed by the Communist boot. King Hamlet's funeral opens the opera, with rallying proletarians tearing down the royal statue amidst much flag-waving. (The parallel to Baghdad, circa 2003 is an easy one.) The choristers sang from the middle of the house in a rally of support for Claudius and his new administration. There are raised-fist Fascist salutes, onstage violence by police against protestors, and a bitter, detached Hamlet, moodily smoking a cigarette, hiding behind a pair of Ray-Bans.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Finding Yourself Through Music II: Alkan

When you search for yourself, you may just find yourself.

Those words are particularly appropriate this morning.

Last night on the way home from the Mets game, I'm on the train platform at Queensboro Plaza. For entertainment, I'm listening to The Barber of Seville and reading the highly entertaining thriller The Book of the Dead, from the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.

Two-thirds of the way through the book, there is a scene where the bad guy is seducing the girl. And for musical accompaniment, he chooses (of all things) the piano music of Charles-Valentin Alkan.

"Ah, yes. That is Alkan, the forgotten musical genius of the nineteenth century. You will never hear a more luxuriant, cerebral, technically challenging artist--never. When his pieces were first played-- a rare event, by the way since few pianists are up to the challenge--people thought them to be diabolically inspired. Even now, Alkan's music inspires strange behavior in listeners. Some think they smell smoke while listening; others find themselves trembling or growing faint.

"This piece is the Grande Sonate, "Les Quatre Âges." The Hamelin recording of course, I've never heard more assured virtuosity or more commanding finger technique." He paused, listening intently for a moment. "This fugal passage, for instance. If you count the octave doublings, it has more parts, than a pianist has fingers! I know you appreciate it…as few do."

Well, let us say that I was stunned. I'm a piano music geek and something of an Alkan fan. I have had that very recording for years. So I wake up today and determined to write about that very recording. Looking for a picture of the composer, I run across this blog post.

"Charles-Valentin Morhange, better known as Alkan (1813-1888), is one of the great, lost piano composers of 19th century France. Great, because his challenging, complex music is written on an epic scale with technical virtuosity that rivals the works of Franz Liszt. Lost, because Alkan was a misanthrope, and quite possibly an agoraphobe. He was also an Orthodox Jew who studied the Talmud and music with equal fervor. The opposite of the flamboyant Liszt, Alkan gave recitals infrequently, taught occasionally, and disappeared for years at a stretch, either travelling abroad or holed up in his Paris apartment, receiving no visitors.

Thanks to a few, brave pianists with fingers and nerves of steel, Alkan's dizzying music is now available to sample on CD. A good place to start is this 1994 recital disc by Marc-Andre Hamelin on Hyperion, featuring the Grande Sonate (Les Quatres Âges) and the Sonatine. The French-Canadian pianist meets the vast technical challenges of this music, but chooses fearsome accuracy over flashy showmanship. This is a performance of extreme dynamics. The artist slams the hammer down at the appropriate climactic moments, but then slows down with an elegant, expansive lyric touch."

Yes, that's right. I wrote those paragraphs about this very recording two years ago, right here on Superconductor. So once again, when you go looking around on the web, you sometimes find…yourself.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

CD Review: Pavarotti in Idomeneo from 1964

The classic recording from Glyndebourne finally comes to light.
by Paul Pelkonen
EEK! What's that?
In 1964, Luciano Pavarotti was an up-and-coming tenor, just beginning to be heard outside of his native Italy. He was three years into his career when he sang the the role of Idamante at the Glyndebourne Festival. The performances were crucial to exposing the singer to English audiences, not to mention acquainting him with the Mozart opera that he would be associated with later in his career, when he would take on (and record) the more demanding title role.

This recording is the document of those performances. It finds the young Pavarotti in top form. He might be a little raw in spots, but that could also be the fault of the sound quality. The power, range and flexibilty of his instrument are all present, along with that rich, orotund sound that the world fell in love with. Listening to this set, one gets the sense of a young man on his way up, about to conquer the world.

The rest of the cast is incredibly strong. Gundula Janowitz soars as Ilia. She's only 27 here, and the great Karajan recordings were in her future. Like Pavarotti, she was heading for bigger things. Tenor Richard Lewis is strong in the role of Idomeneo, a part which Pavarotti would take on later in his career when his voice had matured a bit. John Pritchard leads a skilful, light-footed performance, conducting from the keyboard.

It should be noted that this recording does not hold up as an ideal first choice for Idomeneo. The performers are using an edited edition of the score which hurts the work's dramatic flow and omits the ballet music. And the live-recorded sound is occasionally thin, as if the microphones were sometimes in the wrong place. However, this is a valuable document and a great performance. It's also a must for Pavarotti fans who want to hear what their hero sounded like when he was just starting out.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Got Hunch? A Buyer's Guide to Rigoletto

Script for a Jester's Tear: Tito Gobbi as Rigoletto

Rigoletto is the opera that cemented Verdi's reputation as a master of Italian opera, and the first of his "big three" with Il Trovatore and La Traviata immediately following. There are some great recordings in the catalogue, most of them from the middle of the last century. Here's a quick guide to getting the most court jester for your money.

Coro E Orchestra del La Scala cond. Tullio Serafin (EMI 1955)
Rigoletto: Tito Gobbi
The Duke: Giuseppe di Stefano
Gilda: Maria Callas
The same cast that nailed Tosca two years before does a fabulous job with Rigoletto. Callas soars to the top deck, and Gobbi snarls depravedly as her father. Di Stefano is a scheming, smarmy Duke, even though the voice was beginning its decline.

Coro E Orchestra del La Scala cond. Rafael Kubelik (DG, 1961)
Rigoletto: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
The Duke: Carlo Bergonzi
Gilda: Renata Scotto
Kubelik conducts an intelligent reading of the score featuring Fischer-Dieskau as the hunchbacked jester. The German lieder specialist acquits himself well in Italian. Carlo Bergonzi is a fabulous, virile Duke, well matched with the young Renata Scotto.

London Symphony Orchestra cond. Richard Bonynge (Decca, 1971)
Rigoletto: Sherril Milnes
The Duke: Luciano Pavarotti
Gilda: Joan Sutherland
This is the recording I cut my teeth on as a young man. Luciano is at the peak of his form in one of his best roles: the Duke you can't resist. He makes "Quest'o quella" sound like a reasonable philosophy. Milnes is a tragic torn jester and Sutherland is a pretty, if mature Gilda. Best of all, Martti Talvela as the knife-wielding Sparafucile.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Carlo Maria Giulini (DG, 1980)
Rigoletto: Piero Cappuccili
The Duke: Placído Domingo
Gilda: Ileana Cotrubas
Giulini's methodical approach to the score is not loved by everybody, but the man conducted a fine Rigoletto. Domingo makes a rare foray into bad-guy territory here, reaching to the very top of his voice and virility. The great Piero Cappuccilli is the thinking man's Rigoletto: equal parts monster and caring father in the title role.

Roma Orchestra di Santa Cecilia cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (Philips/Decca, 1984)
Rigoletto: Renato Bruson
The Duke: Neil Shicoff
Gilda: Edita Gruberova
For some bizarre reason, the late Giuseppe Sinopoli eliminated the "extra" high notes that thrill lovers of Rigoletto. His version is a bizarre, Shakespearean drama through a cracked looking glass. Renato Bruson is a towering hunchback, well matched with Gruberova, who also filmed the role of Gilda with Pavarotti a few years before.

A Complete History of the 'Complete Edition'

The Deutsche Grammophon label has just announced the release of two new "Complete Editions": one featuring all the works of Robert Schumann and one with the complete works of Gustav Mahler.

Schumann: The Masterworks consists of 35 CDs including the piano works, choral music and the quasi-operatic "Scenes from Goethe's Faust" comes out this week. Gustav Mahler: The Complete Edition arrives on June 22. It compiles great DG and Decca recordings of the symphonies by a starry galaxy of conductors, including Claudio Abbado, Herbert von Karajan, and Leonard Bernstein along with pieces like Das Klagende Lied and Das Lied von der Erde.

Complete Editions are boxed sets of CDs, featuring all of the works by one composer, gathered into a large budget-priced box. Most often, the sets come with the CDs packaged in simple paper sleeves. There is usually a small booklet, although some labels save printing costs by making the booklet into a CD file and putting it on a CD-Rom.

The now-defunct Philips label put out the first "complete edition" when they repackaged a lot of old recordings and some new ones as the Complete Mozart Edition to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. This consisted of 180 discs packaged in boxed sets, starting with the symphonies and ending with Die Zauberflöte. The total cost was about $3,000. Luckily, the sets were available seperately, and "mid-priced" at about $11 a CD.

Eventually, the set was reissued again, costing about $1,000, but also available seperately. The clunky, brittle jewel boxes were replaced by 16 cardboard cases and paper sleeves But with the absorption of the Philips catalogue into Decca/London as part of the Universal Music Group, the Mozart Edition sets are again out of print. In 1999, Teldec (now Warner Classics) released the Bach 2000 Edition. (153 discs, 12 box sets.) DG answered with a suitcase-sized Complete Beethoven Edition. Both of these are also out of print.

In recent years, Brilliant Classics have put out Complete Editions of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, featuring recordings by more obscure ensembles, along with reissues of out-of-print recordings from the Berlin, Decca, and Telarc catalogues. Priced at a dirt-cheap rate (the $145 Mozart Edition consists of 170 CDs--less than a dollar a disc!), these sets are about the size of a loaf of bread. These exhaustive surveys are a cornucopia for music lovers as well as those scholarly types who write long articles about record company reissues for classical music blogs.

Last year, DG got on the bandwagon (again) with their Brahms Edition, which was 46 discs, a veritable cosmic cube of music. They've also put out an excellent Chopin Complete Edition. With the release of the Mahler and Schumann sets, it can only be hoped that the reissues and repackaging of these excellent classical catalogues will continue in the current decade.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Concert Review: The Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

The Cleveland Orchestra's appearance at Carnegie Hall on Friday night featured Berg's Lulu Suite, bookended by energetic performances of Beethoven's "Corolian" Overture and the Eroica Symphony.

Franz Welser-Möst

Franz Welser-Möst led a performance that emphasized the orchestra's signature sound, a warm, rich, mellow blend that puts the crack string section squarely to the fore.This overture, which depicts the petulant Roman general Coriolanus (star of his own Shakespeare tragedy) came off as the first movement of a lost Beethoven symphony. Mr. Welser-Möst, whose unusual podium style often finds his back turned to half the orchestra at any given time, emphasized the power of Beethoven's rude energy as well as the work's delicate use of counterpoint.

The Lulu Suite, a series of excerpts from Alban Berg's second opera was originally designed to promote the performance of Lulu in Vienna. It is ironic then, that the the Clevelanders' performance followed a successful three-night run of Lulu in its entirety at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Welser-Möst transformed Berg's often spiky and atonal textures into lush sounds, emphasizing the post-Romanticism that beats at the heart of this opera. He was aided by the soaring soprano of Erin Morley. She sang Lulu's lied with passion, rising to the character's self-defense with an expansive display of technical prowess. The ostinato movement and the final "Jack the Ripper" scene brought the heavy brass to the fore, cutting through the warm textures like the cold steel of that famous killer.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 is one of those works that is played and re-interpreted so frequently that any performance of it throws light upon the conductor and his ideas regarding music in general. On Friday night, Mr. Welser-Möst led the first movement with great clarity of texture, emphasizing the contrapuntal nature of Beethoven's writing. It is a testament to the skill of the Cleveland players that the under-themes and ground bass were as compelling to listen to as the main melodies of the work.

The famous funeral march was taken at a deliberate pace, but never plodded. The third movement's trio section was marred by some bad notes in the horns, but the orchestra recovered. The famous finale, where Beethoven builds a towering structure out of just a few notes, was played at a brisk, compelling pace.
Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni/The Cleveland Orchestra

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Opera Makes People Happy

A fabulous opera flash mob: the singers of the Opera Company of Philadelphia teamed up with the Reading Terminal Market to perform the "Brindisi" from Act I of La Traviata. Filmed in Philadelphia on April 24th.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Top Five Opera Productions of the 2009-2010 Season

Bunnies having wild sex, Siberian prisoners and a hot, sexy Carmen. Here's the best of the 2009-2010 opera season. And even the Tosca I saw wasn't bad--with the cuts and the second cast.

The Fairy Queen at BAM
"As the mind-bending masques began, a lake, a Monet haystack and even the Garden of Eden appeared. Not to mention the tableau of two dozen dancers in Easter bunny costumes enacting the Kama Sutra on the BAM stage...."

The Nose at the Met
"Most entertaining are the animations featuring the Nose's adventures as it grows to human size, acquires legs, dresses up as a State Councillor, and leads its owner a merry chase around the city. A memorable image: old film of Shostakovich himself playing the piano, his face obscured by the black bulk of the runaway Nose."

Don Giovanni at City Opera
"By putting all the actors onstage during the overture, the director forces the audience to "play detective" and figure out who everybody is as the drama develops. But there was no missing the excellent assembly of voices."

From The House of the Dead at the Met
"The lights came up to reveal Richard Peduzzi's set, which consisted of moving, bleak gray walls, placing the prisoners in a bizarre B.F. Skinner box."

Carmen at the Met
"Each act opens with a scena played out by two dancers, an idealized version of the relationship between Carmen and Don José. The opera's action is compressed in and around a crumbling, Romanesque arena that moves and rotates with the needs of the staging."

Food For Thought

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.

But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends."

--Anton Ego

Image © 2007 Disney/PIXAR.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Concert Review: Kurt Masur and the Philharmonic Look Back

Kurt Masur
Kurt Masur returned to the New York Philharmonic this week. His return was marked with a boisterous performance of Beethoven's First Symphony, paired with an expansive reading of the mighty Seventh by Anton Bruckner, the symphony which began his 11-year tenure as Music Director in 1989. Despite a visible tremor in his hands, the maestro (who turns 83 this July) showed that his rapport with the orchestra is still strong and his touch on the podium as skilful as ever.

The concert opened with Beethoven's First Symphony. Mr. Masur's performance disputes the notion that this is a "light" Beethoven work. Yes, it's shorter than the Eroica or the heaven-storming Ninth, but the First shows the light of what is to come from Beethoven's pen. The slow movement demonstrates Beethoven's mastery of the fugue, with the theme tossed back and forth between the four string sections to thrilling effect. Under Mr. Masur's baton, the Mozartean finale resonated with warmth and good humor.

Mr. Masur led a tour of the magnificent architecture of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony, guided by the heroic playing of the Philharmonic's brass section. He made sense of the structure of these mammoth movements, building huge arches out of the blocks of sound, taking the first movement all the way to its thrilling coda, a cascading chorale of brass and strings. Given the acoustic limitations of Avery Fisher Hall, and the difficulties of balancing a gigantic brass section (including four Wagner tubas) with the strings and winds, Mr. Masur's achievement is all the more remarkable.

The highlight of this hour-long symphony was the second movement. Written as a eulogy for Bruckner's friend and inspiration Richard Wagner, this is an Adagio that soars even as it mourns. The final passages, where the Wagner tubas come to the fore, was played with stirring force. Conducting without a score, Mr. Masur made the dance movement stomp and roar like a chained giant. The finale, with its noble theme and a return of the "cascading" brass from the first movement, brought the work to a thunderous, harmonious close.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Walk on Bruckner Boulevard

The New York Philharmonic welcomes Kurt Masur back to Lincoln Center Wednesday night. He will conduct the Beethoven First Symphony and the Bruckner Seventh.

Anton Bruckner, the short Austrian church organist who idolized Beethoven and Wagner, spent his life constructing enormous symphonies, designed to glorify the divine and celebrate the human condition.

Like many of his contemporary 19th century composers, Bruckner wrote nine symphonies. (He actually completed 11, but two of them were rejected by the composer. Today, they are numbered "0" and "00" and are performed occasionaly.) Of the nine, the last one was unfinished. Bruckner, in ill health in his last few years, sketched a fourth movement, but never finished it as he was preoccupied with endless revisions on his Eighth.

To start listening to Bruckner, try the Fourth or Seventh Symphonies. These are generally considered his most accessible works. The Eighth is the mightiest structure of them all, although probably would have been eclipsed by the Ninth, which survives as a three-movement torso.

Bruckner's music is intended to reach upwards to the heavens. Each symphony starts with hushed tremolo in the strings, evoking Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He then erects huge spires of brass chords anchored in rolls of timpani and slow, thoughtful melodies. The orchestra plays in gigantic blocks of music, stopping and starting. A phrase will finish. There is a brief pause, and then it will repeat, with richer harmony and heavier orchestration.

Later movements often involve a ländler, the Austrian peasant dance that also appears in Mahler's symphonies. There is inevitably a contemplative, slow movement, and then a triumphant finale in which the sonic structures of the first movement are reassembled, rebuilt and brought to a towering climax.

There are many excellent complete (and incomplete) cycles of Bruckner symphonies, most available as a moderately-priced boxed set. Eugen Jochum's two cycles are excellent. Sergiu Celibdache's unique vision is preserved in a set of live recordings, and Daniel Barenboim's recent set has fine digital sound and the full brass sound of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Concert Review: One Last Sacrifice

New York Philharmonic plays Stravinsky with Gergiev.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Valery Gergiev, looking remarkably like the bad guy in the Vin Diesel movie xXx.

Saturday morning marked the final performance of The Russian Stravinsky, the New York Philharmonic's three-week festival focusing on the composer and his works. At this concert, Valery Gergiev presented a fresh, completely original approach to one of Stravinsky's most familiar scores: The Rite of Spring.

Art as Music: Five Recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky wrote the ten works that make up Pictures at an Exhibition as a tribute to his late friend, the artist Viktor Hartmann. Hartmann's works were immortalized in a series of pieces (originally written for piano) that depict his art-work: paintings, drawings, and even architectural sketches on display. The work, published after Mussorgsky's death, became a concert favorite when it was orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Here's a look at five very different recordings of Pictures at an Exhibition.

Philadelphia Orchestra cond. Eugene Ormandy
A classic recording displaying the warm Philadelphia sound under Ormandy. The reissue bundles an excellent set excerpts from the opera Boris Godunov, featuring George London in the title role. Thomas Schippers conducts the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Ivo Pogorelich, Piano
Pictures was originally written as a piano suite. It was published after Mussorgsky's death in a version edited by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov. The unedited version of the score (played here) gives a better sense of the composer's original intentions. Ivo Pogolerich gives a slow, thoughtful performance, stretching the work by about ten minutes. If you want to hear how Mussorgsky originally concieved the piece, this is a good place to start.

Philharmonia Orchestra, cond. Vladimir Ashkenazy; Vladimir Ashkenazy, Piano
This Decca reissue combines Ashkenazy's piano recording of the original version with his own orchestration of Mussorgsky's score. Ashkenazy is a fine pianist, although he makes some odd decisions: his "Old Castle" is much faster than Pogolerich and he plays the opening of "Bydlo" at full volume. The orchestral transcription gives the listener a slightly different take on the score than the "standard" Ravel version that might be closer to what Mussorgsky intended.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Claudio Abbado
Well-played, thunderous version from Abbado's tenure with the Berliners. This was Abbado's second recording of the cycle. If you want the Ravel orchestration, this is a well-played recording, with the crack Berlin brass at their very best. You also get a harrowing Night on Bald Mountain and some rare Mussorgsky choral works. The original CD is currently out of the catalogue, but it shows up in used shops from time to time.

Emerson Lake and Palmer
The progressive rock trio (keyboards, bass, drums) started playing a shortened version of the suite at their early concerts. Designed to showcase the virtuosity of ELP, this is even more bombastic than the Ravel version, with liberal use of Hammond organ and Moog synthesizer. Also, in this version. "The Great Gate of Kiev" has lyrics! The original live version was recorded in Newcastle in 1971. In 2003, a reunited ELP recorded a studio rendition for their box set, The Return of the Manticore.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Concert Review: The New York Philharmonic's 15,000th concert.

The New York Philharmonic celebrated their anniversary on Wednesday night as The Russian Stravinsky, a festival celebrating the composer's works as conducted by Valery Gergiev, rolled into its final week. This concert featured Petrushka, the ballet telling the tale of a love-sick puppet, as well as the Symphony in C and the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra.

The Symphony in C is a rich, complicated score, combining the composer's neo-classical tendencies with hard-punching percussion and Stravinsky's use of odd rhythms and meters.. Originally commissioned for the New York Philharmonic, the work had been neglected by the orchestra for thirty years. Wednesday night's performance made a case for this acerbic score, with its piano figurations and complex wind writing. Mr. Gergiev also rose to the occasion, giving an energetic performance.

Far more exciting (and even more rare) was the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, a four-movement work that is a virtuoso concerto in all but name. Soloist Denis Matsuev showed his mettle, racing through the difficult movements with accurate runs, trills and figurations. Mr. Gergiev gave the work momentum, Unusually, Stravinsky groups the orchestra into small clusters of instruments, and uses the work's four movements to play the sections off against each other. This is the roots of "spatial music", although the technique is derived from antiphonal church music of the Middle Ages.

Petrushka is the second of the great ballet scores that Stravinsky wrote for Diaghalev's Ballet Russe. However, the listener doesn't always hear the full orchestration, which calls for enormous forces. Mr. Gergiev made the puppet dance to his tune, and allowed the rich colors of Stravinsky's imagination to burst forth. From Glenn Dicterow's elegaic violin solo to the rude (but musical) noises emerging from the depths of the tuba, Petrushka is an overwhelming (if somewhat twisted) work. Unlike the Firebird, this ballet ends on a question mark, as the ghost of the murdered puppet avenges itself on those who killed him. But this performance left no question that Gergiev, Stravinsky and the Philharmonic continue to make exciting music together.

Photo: Valery Gergiev: master of puppets.
Photo © 2010 London Symphony Orchestra

Concert Review: Peter Gabriel at Radio City Music Hall

Peter Gabriel
Veteran English art rocker Peter Gabriel brought his New Blood Tour to Radio City Music Hall this weekend. Mr. Gabriel's current tour has more to do with 19th century art songs than rock and roll. His latest, Scratch My Back, is a set of twelve covers--songs by other artists. Six of them are from Mr. Gabriel's contemporaries (Neil Young, Lou Reed) and six are from younger artists like Radiohead and Arcade Fire. The show featured the singer eschewing the traditional rock format, and performing with piano and a full symphony orchestra.

Attempts to combine the power of an orchestra with a rock band dot the history of rock'n'roll, from '60s experiments like the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed and Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra More recently, Yes, Metallica and Dream Theater have done their own orchestral projects. But in this case, the drums and guitars are left in their road cases, replaced with the 54-piece "New Blood Orchestra", a hand-picked ensemble of taleneted young players, under the careful baton of Ben Foster. Thanks to Mr. Gabriel's talents and the brilliant, sometimes witty arrangements by John Metcalfe, the experiment is a success.

Mr. Gabriel performed the entirety of Scratch My Back in order, as a song cycle of sorts. The songs work well live. David Bowie's "Heroes" and Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" were melancholy, almost dirge-like. "My Body is a Cage" (the Arcade Fire entry) is a raging, minimalist crescendo. The song owes debts to Metallica's "One" but the minimalist arrangement recalled Ravel's Bolero. The grim mood was lifted by "The Book of Love," a sweet, yearning song by the Magnetic Fields. It was accompanied by whimsical, chalk-line animation which mused on the nature of commitment.

The second half of the show featured Mr. Gabriel's own material, again re-arranged for orchestra. The energy picked up as Mr. Gabriel hit the soaring high notes of "San Jacinto." The set featured a range of songs from his long solo career, standing crowd favorites "Solisbury Hill" and "In Your Eyes"  alongside more esoteric tracks. These included a propulsive "The Rhythm and the Heat", the confessional "Washing of the Water" and "Mercy Street", the poetic tribute to the work of Anne Sexton. The deepest revisions were made to "Signal to Noise", with the soprano vocals of Ane Brun replacing the qawwali vocals of the late Nusret Fateh Ali Khan. Mr. Gabriel has left his world music obsessions behind on this tour. In the process, he has discovered something new and refreshing in his music, aided by the power of the orchestra.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Met Ring Trailer

A stage design for Das Rheingold.

The Metropolitan Opera is preparing a new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle. The staging, designed by Canadian director Robert Lepage and featuring imaginative use of projections and a single unit set, will feature the vocal talents of Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt, who will sing Brunnhilde for the first time.

The trailer, below, was just released and gives some idea of what we're going to see. And it could be really good. I especially like the image of the gigantic wings and the wall of magic fire.

Next season will see the premiere of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The full Ring will be performed in the Spring of 2012.

Photo © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera

Opera Review: Der Fliegende Holländer (again!)

Monday night's sailing of The Flying Dutchman at the Met marked the house debut of an impressive singer. Soprano Lori Phillips, substituting for an ill Deborah Voigt in the key role of Senta, sang the role with formidable power and passion. She was complemented by Juha Uusitalo in the title role, sounding much more sure of himself than at the season premiere.

Perhaps it was due to better personal health, (or maybe just that the Dutchman's enormous gangplank worked correctly) but Mr. Uusitalo was a much improved (if still doomed) Dutchman. The top of the voice had regained its fierce growl and the high notes rung with confidence. He also managed an impressive entrance with "Die frist ist um," carrying off this difficult aria in such a way as to provide momentum to the rest of his performance.

Ms. Phillips is an American singer with a powerful, dramatic voice and good acting ability. She takes a different approach to the role, singing with more consistent volume throughout. And yet, she sings the notes accurately. Unlike Ms. Voigt, Ms. Phillips opened up the voice at the start of the Ballad, narrating the story of her ghostly obsession and sounding just slightly over the edge. Real romantic dementia set in with the arrival of Mr. Uusitalo. Their slow-building Act II duet rose to a mighty climax that foreshadowed the powerful third act.

This is an opera where the Met chorus really gets to shine. Whether they're portraying the capering Norwegian sailors, the ghostly mariners trapped aboard the Dutchman's ship, or the spinning, sail-making women-folk of the tiny nautical town, the choristers were on exceptional form on Monday night. Their finest moment came in Act III, where the three aforementioned groups battle it out on the docks. Also worth mentioning is bass Hans-Peter König as Daland. His bumptious sea captain-turned-pimp-daddy is one of the chief pleasures of this current run.

Out to sea: Juha Uusitalo as the Flying Dutchman.
Photo © 2010 Corey Weaver/The Metropolitan Opera

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Concert Review: Penderecki Conducts Penderecki

The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki brought the Yale Philharmonic Orchestra to Carnegie Hall on Friday evening as part of the orchestra's Yale in New York series. The award-winning composer led the orchestra in a program of four of his own works.

Krzysztof Penderecki conducts a rehearsal of the Threnody.

The evening opened with the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Written in 1960 for large string orchestra, this work uses "tone clusters" (whole sets of notes played together to create powerful blocks of dissonance) and unusual playing techniques to create a harsh sonic landscape that evokes the horrors of nuclear war. The players pluck, scrape, and strike the bellies of their instruments. The knocks, yowls and screeches that result create a terrifying sound: the sound of total annihilation.

Violinist Syoko Aki joined the orchestra for the Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra, a one-movement concerto that pits the skittering, panicked sound of the soloist against great slabs of brass and strings in the orchestra. Sonically, it is as if a conventional violin concerto was being played through the broken shards of a mirror. Penderecki uses brass, harmonium, piano, and even a musical saw to provide contrast to the fleet-fingered arpeggios and statement of the main theme, which in turn evokes Polish folk-songs.

Penderecki came to Yale to teach music in the 1970s. Works written in that period showed the composer gradually rejecting atonality and serialism in favor of a "neo-classical" approach to music. The thoughtful construction and fearless experimentation is still present, but the fear and oppression are gone, leading to sunnier textures that may be easier for the listener.

Written in 2008, the Horn Concerto (Winterreise) is a good introduction to this tonal approach. Soloist William Purvis coped admirably with the challenges written for his instrument. He played in call-and-response with a trio of echoing horns as the orchestra twisted and whirled through a kaleidoscope of sound including Mahlerian waltz-parody and marvelous string textures.

The concert concluded with the one-movement Fourth Symphony. Conceived as an Adagio, this slow, thoughful work laid out a glittering sonic carpet for the listener, punctuated with mighty statements from the onstage brass and three trumpeters positioned in the balcony. Penderecki propelled the work forward, leading the band into a frenzied attempt at a fugue, interrupted by the mocking brass. Finally, a second, full statement of the fugue theme led to the orchestra slowly fading out, instrument by instrument to end the composition with a powerful statement of silence. The silence was broken by the acclaim for composer and orchestra.
Photo © 2010 Yale Philharmonic Orchestra.
Photo by Vincent Oneppo, courtesy Aleba Gartner Associates

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