Thursday, December 11, 2008

HANDEL: Messiah - Karl Richter, London Philharmonic

Just came out yesterday. Remember that I always write to/about students.


Album: HANDEL: Messiah

Artist(s): Karl Richter, London Philharmonic Orchestra,
John Alldis Choir, Donald Macintyre, Stuart Burrows, Helen Donath, Anna Reynolds

One of the most honored holiday traditions of Anglo culture is performances of Handel’s Messiah. Most of us have attended at least one in our lives—we even have a biannual performance here at Elmhurst College that is always quite respectably done and is a standing recommendation. Nevertheless, experience strangely reveals that too few actually own a copy of Messiah on disc.

It therefore seems appropriate to highlight recommend this present performance of Karl Richter’s, which stands firmly in the Romantic Messiah tradition preserved through the last century. Unlike most modern recordings, this Messiah utilizes a full orchestra, large chorus, and operatic soloists who do no ornamentation. To the “period performance” type, this doubtless sounds horrific, but the fact of the matter is that this performance is one of recorded music’s best kept secrets, unfairly relegated to obscurity.

Richter’s conducting confirms his status as the then-reigning Bach expert—squarely Germanic, displaying broad, stately tempi and a good sense of baroque rhythm. The opening overture is vested with weight and great seriousness, but doesn’t drag—you may miss the double-dotting often read into the score if that’s what you’re used to, but the more traditional approach succeeds very well on its own terms. In particular the “Pastoral Symphony” is very pretty and lovingly phrased. The sound he draws from the orchestra is bit relaxed and mellow (the strings sound almost lazy in places), but very deep and appropriate to his stately conception.

Richter’s approach is well served by the John Alldis Choir, whose mature sound and admirable precision are on full display throughout. The lengthy melismas of “And He Shall Purify” sound quite comfortable for the ensemble and Richter’s dynamic changes are very well judged. “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” and “Hallelujah” both capture the necessary joy and grandeur of the words. Perhaps the only misfire is “Behold the Lamb God,” where the absence of double dotting inhibits the dramatic punch of the music.

The soloists are all rock solid vocally and are all native English speakers, delivering satisfying renditions of all the works solo “highlights.” Helen Donath and Anna Reynolds both consistently perform capably and musically, Donath notable for her sweet, even timbre. Donald Macintyre’s Wagnerian bass-baritone is sonorous, powerful, and delivers his solo pieces with suitable majesty and control. Most refreshingly, he also sings “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming,” eschewing the inferior practice of giving this aria to the alto. But the tenor is the real standout here—in Stuart Barrows we have a consummate oratorio tenor, warm and bright, at once both gentlemanly and heroic. His performances of “Comfort Ye” and “Ev’ry Valley” are darn near perfect, elegant and sincere in the recitative, breezy and cheerful in the aria. And he is equally capable in “Thou Shalt Break Them,” correctly conveying the anger of the text with through both color and his explosive high notes.

In all, this performance produces a most singular and valuable quality: a feeling of timelessness, perfectly capturing the eternal nature of both the music and its subject matter. The album is definitely worth owning, and its relative obscurity makes it a fairly cheap proposition (around $8 on Amazon at the time of writing). If you don’t already Messiah, get this one.

Rating: A

BACH: "Ich Habe Genug"; BRAHMS: Lieder - Hans Hotter et al

Published...a few weeks ago.

Album: BACH: Cantata No. 82 "Ich Habe Genug"; BRAHMS: Vier erste Ges änge; 12 Lieder

Artist(s): Hans Hotter, Anthony Bernard, Geraint Jones, Philharmonia Orchestra of London, Gerald Moore

Traditionally, the best trained, most powerful, and most beautiful voices have favored the opera house, with interpretation taking a backseat to impressive vocalism. In contrast, less talented singers tend to favor the art song, committing all sorts of vocal immoralities in the name of “artistry.” And then there are the “period performance” twits, who can do most any ugly, scratchy thing so long as the academics agree.

It is a supreme pleasure, then, when vocalism at the very highest level is combined with the emotive qualities of the art song or the formal structures of baroque and renaissance music. Such is the case here.

Hans Hotter possessed a dark, majestic, distinctly Germanic bass-baritone. His was the thunderous voice of gods and kings, perfectly suited to the great Wagner roles for which he was known. It is strange, then, to think of him in the humble religious trappings of Bach, or the intimate world of German lieder. Yet, he was perhaps one of the most insightful interpreters of the last century, known for performances of great sincerity and feeling.

The present album, recorded when the Hotter was in his prime, exemplifies his vocal and interpretive powers. Bach’s Ich Habe Genug, in which the Christian protagonist expresses his distaste towards life and longs for Jesus, is given perhaps its most affecting treatment on record. To hear an instrument of such majesty in Bach is simply wonderful, and Hotter captures the cantata’s essence from the very first aria—he colors his powerful voice with complete humility, like a great man crushed by his cares. His phrasing displays a sensitive use of rubato, maintaining legato and the integrity of the vocal line while making each phrase ache with weariness. Similarly, the second aria is very legato, with Hotter lightening and warming his voice to create a vision of heavenly rest. And he throws himself into the difficult runs of third aria most impressively, his wish for death stated with just the right balance of aggression and desperation.

Brahm’s biblical Four Serious Songs are just that—there are four of them and they are very, very serious, except for the last one which is actually kind of cheery in parts. The insightful, cynical commentary of the three texts is given appropriately funereal treatment, and Hotter thunders nicely when the words call for it. The fourth song—in which Paul exhorts the Corinthians to practice charity—is very warm and strikingly sincere throughout.

The 12 lieder rounding off the album are a little more of a mixed bag. Most listeners are used to ignoring the character deficiencies of individual timbres, but at times, the sentimental poetry sounds just a bit odd in the voice of Wotan. Still, each song is interpreted expertly, and there is much here to please even the most critical ear. Feldeinsamkeit dreamily draws out Brahms’ Elysium-like world without ever languishing. Sappische Ode is very sweet, very devoted, and very beautifully phrased. Ständchen displays Hotter at his lightest and most charming. And of course, the more dramatic songs fare very well, particularly Verrat, in which the protagonist’s bitter sarcasm may be felt keenly.

Hotter’s collaborators are a pleasure throughout, the Philharmonia Orchestra supporting with a nice feeling of pathos in the Bach and Gerald Moore delivering his typically perfect accompaniments in the Brahms. The recorded sound varies, a little grey and grainy in the cantata (which strangely adds to the mood), but fairly clear in the lieder.

The Bach alone is worth the price of admission on this album, and the Brahms is almost as good. Indispensable for fans of either composer, particularly if you feel starved for fine voices in this repertoire. It’s selling at mid price, too.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade - Beecham/RPO

To be week sometime.

Man, I am glad I did this one. I hadn't gone over all those recordings in a while.


Album: RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade; BORODIN: Polotsvian Dances

Artist(s): Sir Thomas Beecham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Beecham Choral Society

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a wonderful, intoxicating piece of music. Standing as the composer’s most beloved composition, its picturesque Orientalism—realized through brilliant, inventive orchestration and an outpouring of exotic melody—lends itself perfectly to conductors’ varied styles. Listeners adore comparing performances—invariably, Reiner’s recording is extolled for its technical excellence, Stokowski’s for its mysticism, and Svetlanov’s for its 100% genuine Russian bombast.

Yet, even in such a crowded field, this present performance by Sir Thomas Beecham is perhaps the most universally admired recording of Scheherazade. In fact, it is so admired that even the colossal ego in Herbert von Karajan initially declined to record the work, remarking that Beecham’s interpretation could not be improved upon.

Frankly, the praise is bit overdone. This is not to say that this is a bad recording—by no means! Beecham was one of those conductors who could seemingly do no wrong, and there is certainly nothing wrong here, per se. But for comparison, let us draw upon one of Scheherazade’s very best performances—Ernest Ansermet’s lamentably rare 1954 recording with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra.

Take the opening few bars. The Sultan’s theme roars out of the brass, and Scheherazade’s voice—symbolized by the haunting violin solo that unifies all four movements—responds, spinning the first of her tales, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship. Beecham’s opening shows the maestro in classic form, smoothly propelling the metallic, ominous sound of the brass with a very musical and masculine snap. And his violinist is very good, depicting our heroine with seductive style. In contrast, Ansermet’s sultan is bit less forceful, a bit warmer and more balanced with the strings and reeds. His sultan has just a little more weight around the middle and strides in purposefully. Ansermet’s violinist plays swiftly, with considerable freedom and feeling—in his hands, Scheherazade’s’ feminine voice coyly convinces the sultan to pause and listen.

In the second movement, The Story of the Kalendar Prince, Beecham’s bassoon soloist is really very good, aptly injecting a bit of awkward character into his solo without sacrificing rhythm. The strings are very elegant. And the maestro’s same, classy, snappy phrasing works wonders in the faster parts of the music, particularly in all those wonderfully rousing orchestral strikes towards the end where his wide dynamic range really comes to bear. Clearly, Beecham has the superior orchestra and they play the pants off this music. Yet, Ansermet somehow makes his comparatively sloppy ensemble sound more appropriate—the fluttering, less precise winds are the voices of his characters, and the lighter, thinner strings are the dust and air they breathe. With them, he takes full advantage of Rimsky’s colorful and atmospheric orchestration, defining each melodic line with unerring clarity.

And these trends continue. In the third movement, The Young Prince and the Young Princess, Beecham is all elegance and charm, making a tasty “Beecham bon-bon” of this romance. And his clarinetist depicts a lovely princess indeed. But Ansermet’s is a lighter, sweeter, and more innocent pair of lovers—by comparison, Beecham has too little fairy tale and a bit too much Tchaikovsky. Is that such a bad thing? Well, no, actually it’s great, and no one could ever say that Beecham’s conception lacks character. But Ansermet’s storytelling is second to none.

The last movement, The Festival of Bagdad – The Sea – The ship goes to pieces on a Rock surmounted by a Bronze Warrior, with its mad dash to finish line and final moments of redemption, suits both conductors just fine. Beecham displays typical panache and energy, galloping through with a palpable sense of fun and arriving at a most sensuous conclusion. Here, his superior orchestra really does give him an edge. Still, Ansermet handles himself well, with the Baghdad festival coming off as quite a ragtag affair and the orchestra’s bright, blaring trumpet intruding in a wonderfully impetuous way.

In short, both recordings are excellent, but neither is the end-all performance. Beecham provides a vivid musical picture of a far away, exotic, spice-filled fantasy world. Ansermet provides a threadbare magic carpet and takes you there.

The “filler” of Borodin’s Polotsvian Dances are hard hitting and very exciting, demonstrating essentially the same qualities as Beecham’s Scheherazade but in music even better suited to them. The appearance of the Beecham Choral Society is a plus. The sound is typical 50’s—clear and very closely miked. The bass is a little weak, but not unacceptable.

Recommended, but don’t limit yourself to just this recording of Scheherazade. Get several different ones and argue over them. It’s fun!

Rating: A-

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Verdi: Rigoletto

Written in Missouri, of all places. Under my own extreme duress.

Published in the October 21st issue of the Elmhurst College Leader.


Album: Verdi: Rigoletto
Artist(s): Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo, Alfredo Kraus, Rosalind Elias, Ezio Flagella, David Ward, Georg Solti, RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus

Rigoletto has had many excellent recordings over the years. In the beginning of the LP era, it was one of the first complete operas produced, with the incomparable Leonard Warren in the title role. When stereo emerged, each label dutifully churned out its own star-studded Rigoletto, featuring such luminaries as Ettore Bastianini, Carl Bergonzi, Joan Sutherland, and the like. And this trend has continued to the present. Rigoletto is one of the strongest warhorses of the recorded repertoire and will likely continue to be. Yet, surprisingly, in almost every recording of the opera, there is some obvious weak link.

Not so here. In Robert Merrill, we have the most glorious baritone voice of the postwar period—a dark and resonant instrument with ringing top notes and an unfailing sense of legato. Often criticized for ‘just singing’ and not adequately portraying his characters, Merrill’s performance here sweeps all such criticisms aside. His scenes with Gilda are tender, warm, and affectionate—entirely contrary to his nasty antics at the court of Mantua. Then witness his Cortigiani and Si, Vendetta, in which he unleashes his voice in righteous, paternal fury. And the moment when his daughter dies is crushing, not in the voice of a pathetic and deformed clown, but as a man overcome by grief in failing his greatest duty. To him, the hunchbacked jester is an almost noble character, twisted into viciousness by his infirmity. More than any other singer who has portrayed Rigoletto, he is utterly believable as a loving and vengeful father. It is truly his finest role.

Gilda is admirably cast as well. From a purely musical standpoint, Anna Moffo’s Gilda about as good as anyone could expect, with lovely, even tone from top to bottom, a seemingly perfect sense of phrasing, and not the slightest hint of vocal strain. Luckily, Gilda requires more musical skills than interpretive ones, though Ms. Moffo is not without some insight. Her Caro Nome is full of girlish longing. Similarly, her Tutte le Feste al tiempo tugs at one’s heart strings in just the right way—she is just so perfectly naïve and angelic, it seems nearly inevitable that someone will murder her.

Merrill’s Rigoletto and Moffo’s Gilda have few if any challengers, but the role of the Duke is another matter. Most every great tenor has taken a shot at the role, whether he was suited to it or not. Kraus succeeds admirably, though not without reservations. Frankly, his main weakness is that his reedy voice is not the equal of Pavarotti or Björling. But such comparisons are unfair—on his own terms, Kraus is a perfectly rakish Duke, full style, and may be summarized as an insightful study in shallowness. He is perhaps the most flippant Duke on record—in Ella mi fu Rapita, his ‘ardent’ longing for Gilda is expressed in almost irritated terms, like he’s lost a toy. La donna è Mobile is full of verve and swagger, clearly conveying the Duke’s irreverent attitude.

The chorus is handled very well, and the smaller parts are consistently well cast. Ezio Flagello’s Sparafucile is less illustrious than some (most notably Cesare Siepi), but serves very well, particularly in the final scene. David Ward is perhaps the best and most convincing Monterone on disc, in sonorous, commanding voice. And Rosalind Elias is very good indeed, injecting a great deal of character into the otherwise small role of Maddalena.

Solti’s conducting is very typical of the maestro. From beginning end, it’s loud, blaring hell on wheels, indulging in dynamic extremes and delivered with an orchestral sledgehammer. In Solti’s hands, Verdi’s claims of serving drama through music are well borne out. A lighter, more lyrical hand might be preferred in the opening party scene, but otherwise, it serves the taut drama of the opera perfectly.

RCA’s sonics are brain splitting. The balance between voices and orchestra is pleasingly theatre-like, so much that the performance sometimes sounds like an unusually good live recording.

In all, this is perhaps the most consistent and dramatic reading of Rigoletto ever committed to disc.

Highly recommended.

Rating: A

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Guide and Recommendations for Chicago's Summer Music

This was published in a vile, butchered form on Tuesday. The complete version is presented here.

It's a little inane, but it would have served its purpose.


Ravinia Festival

(Student Tickets!)

Ravinia is the oldest outdoor music festival in America, a fact they’re sure to mention on their website, in their literature, in their commercials, on their posters, and anywhere else they can slip it in. But their longevity is for a reason—Ravinia has consistently presented a veritable who’s-who of the music world in nearly every era of its existence. Since 1936, the festival has been the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and these days, some would say that Ravinia maestro James Conlon is a finer hand than the orchestra’s own director.

Many wax eloquent about Ravinia’s tradition of elaborate lawn picnics, where concert goers lounge around on the grass and hear the music over a state-of-the-art sound system. Lawn seats are always $10, but if what you care about is the music, it’s recommended you get reserved at either of Ravinia’s two near-ideal main venues. The Martin Theatre is very small, with only 850 seats, but regulars will tell you its “feel” is even smaller. The pavilion is a grand, open air setting that takes advantage of the summer air while still providing a more standard concert experience.

Best of all, college students may present their student IDs at Ravinia’s ticket office on the night of performances to get one of two cut rates: free admission to the lawn or $10 reserved seats in either of the two venues.

Metra runs a “Ravinia Special” on concert days, and while the trains are sometimes crowded, this is still recommended. It even runs out of Ogilvie Transportation Center, which means you can hop a train out of Elmhurst and then go straight out to the festival.

Don Giovanni

(August 15th7:00 PM, August 17th2:00 PM)

Ravinia’s marketing this one hard, and with good reason—to hear Mozart’s masterpiece in the intimate 850-seat Martin Theatre is truly unique opportunity, and with a cast this excellent, the show promises to be stunning. Most prominent is Samuel Ramey, who—though a famous Don Giovanni himself—will be assuming the comic role of the Don’s servant, Leporello. As one of opera’s elder statesmen, any opportunity to hear Mr. Ramey is worth taking, and it seems likely that this will be one of our last occasions to hear the great lion roar. As the Don, we have Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, whose dark, gleaming bass-baritone is one of the most elegant and admired on the opera scene today. He’s also quite the handsome devil and very good actor—his Don promises to be a charming, masculine, and malevolent rake much in the tradition of the great Cesare Siepi. And the rest of the lineup is rife with luxury casting, standouts including Heidi Grant Murphy as Zerlina, Soila Ilkoski as Donna Elvira, and Morris Robinson as Il Commendatore.

But it doesn’t stop there. Our own, legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be in the pit, something that only happens a few times every decade. The admired, 140-year-old Apollo Chorus will also be featured. And of course, veteran Maestro James Conlon will be on the podium, likely turning in a performance that will be far more than the sum of its many impressive parts.

Reserved theatre seats are pricey, set at $75. But if there is one show you should see this summer, this is it. Truly extraordinary by any standard.

Beaux Arts Trio

(August 18th - 8:00 PM; August 19th8PM)

The last 12 months have been a time for many farewells in the music world, but the loss of the Beaux Arts Trio will perhaps be the most lamentable. For over 50 years, this ensemble’s various incarnations have consistently set the standard for their type, turning in performances of remarkable technique, poetry, and power. As part of their farewell tour, this performance will literally be in their last month of existence, promising Beethoven’s B-flat major “Archduke” trio and Schubert’s E-flat major trio. Both works are among the masterpieces of the genre, and both composers are particular specialties of the ensemble—rarely has this music been played with such virile nobility as by these gentlemen. They are still likely the very best in the world, and this is the very last time we may hear them.

Like most Ravinia chamber music concerts, this program will be in the Martin Theatre. Reserved seats range from $30-$50.

Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand

(July 26th7:30 PM)

Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand is rarely performed, and even more rarely performed well. The work is traditionally done with a staggering number of musicians—hence the name—and while you probably won’t see 1000 performers on the stage, the several hundred that will be involved should be more than adequate to knock your socks off. James Conlon is well known as a Mahler conductor and his relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a consistently fruitful one. The orchestra itself is perfectly suited to a huge work like this, possessing not only the world’s greatest brass section, but perhaps the world’s largest and most powerful orchestral sound. And they too are known for their Mahler, a reputation which extends all the way back to the orchestra’s years under Fritz Reiner in the 50’s.

Included in the massive, combined forces of several choruses will also be the Chicago Symphony Chorus, which, like the orchestra, is considered one of the world’s very best and just happens to include some Elmhurst College faculty. The lineup of soloists is also very good, standouts including soprano Christine Brewer, soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, and bass John Relyea.

Reserved seats range from $30-$75.

An Evening of Beethoven (Budget Recommendation)

(July 30th8:00 PM)

Ludwig van Beethoven and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—need more be said? This promises to be a feast for the heroically inclined, with a program including both of Beethoven’s “Napoleonic” works: Symphony No. 3 (Eroica) and Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor). The ever-popular Fidelio Overture is also thrown in for good measure.

Sir Andrew Davis will be conducting and should lead the orchestra in fine, serviceable performances. But even more importantly, American pianist Leon Fleisher is slated to play the concerto. Mr. Fleisher is best known for his medical miracle story, in which botox injections restored the use of his right hand after 40 years of crippling focal dystonia. He’s around 80 now, but his playing is still remarkable, boasting a formidable technique and a broad palette of clear, singing colors. His now-legendary cycle of Beethoven piano concertos places him at the absolute forefront of interpreters in this repertoire—hearing him play should be something really special.

Best of all, this is a “Full House” concert, which means the usual range of ticket prices has been slashed to a flat $25 for all reserved seats.

Grant Park Music Festival

(It’s free!)

One of Chicago’s most admirable traditions, the Grant Park Music Festival has been providing free, high quality classical concerts every summer since 1935. In fact, it claims to be the only free, outdoor classical music festival in the country. But even if this weren’t the case, the festival offers something unique—where else can you hear music at this level with a Lake Michigan Breeze on your face and the sounds of evening traffic screaming in the distance? Best of all, Grant Park is right in the heart of downtown and lends itself perfectly to unplanned jaunts.

The resident Grant Park Orchestra is quite respectable and has been developing nicely for some years. Current music director Carlos Kalmar consistently programs an interesting mix of standard repertoire and weird, experimental fare, and this summer seems no exception.

It’s recommended you arrive early enough to sit in the fixed seats close to the stage, but if you decide to sit on the grass, the Pritzker Pavilion’s sound system offers a reasonable listening experience.

Grant Park’s pretty easy to get to—just find Michigan Avenue. There are four parking garages nearby, but if you prefer public transportation, both Metra and CTA should get you there fine.

Act I, Wagner’s Die Walküre

(August 13th6:30 PM)

So, ever heard Wagner outdoors? Not likely. Even aside from the particular performers, the exceptional premise of this concert makes it worth attending. Act I of Die Walküre is considered by many to be the very highest point of the entire Ring cycle, having a long history of excellent performances outside of the complete opera. As such, it is the most logical vehicle for so welcome an experiment.

But it gets better—music director Carlos Kalmar has somehow pulled together a real top notch set of principals. Cavernous bass Kristinn Sigmundsson will take on the role of the villainous Hunding. As Sieglinde, Nancy Gustafson is the name Grant Park’s pushing for this show—and she’s an excellent singer, no doubt about it—but it’s Torsten Kerl as Siegmund that’s the interesting name here. Dedicated Wagnerians are wondering if he’ll grow into the next great heldentenor, and with good reason—his Germanic voice is focused, bright, youthful, and metallic, slightly reminiscent of our other contemporary almost-heldentenor, Ben Heppner. In fact, the famous Mr. Heppner’s voice is just a little less focused, and a little less “helden” by comparison. True judgment must of course be reserved until Mr. Kerl may be heard live, but what can be heard on his various recordings is downright exciting.

Definitely the most interesting of Grant Park’s concerts this summer and definitely worth your evening.

Pinchas Zukerman

(July 13th7:30 PM)

Grant Park’s usual approach is to hire solid, respectable-but-not-famous musicians, but every once in a while they’ll feature someone well known. In this case, 2008 happens to be the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, so they up and collaborated with the Jewish United Fund to get themselves a famous Jewish performer—violinist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman. Zukerman’s the sort of fellow who’s always being nominated for Grammy awards but rarely wins them—in other words, a very high level musician whose excellence is very much a matter of taste. Objectively speaking, he has a rich, full tone and possesses a respectably virtuosic technique. And earlier this year, he was the musician entrusted with the first-performance-in-70-years on the world’s most expensive violin, a $3.9 million Guarneri owned by Russian businessman Maxim Viktorov.

In any case, Mr. Zukerman is well worth hearing, both as violinist and conductor. The program will include Bach’s D-minor Concerto for Two Violins (where he will be joined by concertmaster Jeremy Black), Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bach-Stokowski: Famous Transcriptions

Published in the April 29th issue of the Elmhurst College Leader.

Album: Bach: Famous Transcriptions—Leopold Stokowski
Artist(s): Leopold Stokowski, Symphony Orchestra

For many people, Leopold Stokowski will forever remain the superbly histrionic conductor-with-the-amusing-hair who shook hands with Mickey Mouse in Fantasia and was occasionally parodied by Bugs Bunny. Given such unquestionably excellent credentials, it may seem strange to learn that Stokowski has long been out of favor in musical circles, and is commonly regarded as something of a charlatan.

While there is some truth to this view (most easily demonstrated by the English-born conductor’s entirely contrived Slavic accent), it sells the maestro very short—little now is said of his seemingly unique ability to draw a lush, burnished tone from even lesser orchestras, so distinctive and evocatively rich that it was known as the “Stokowski sound.” Worse yet, we seem to have forgotten how he introduced an entire generation of listeners to “classical” music, both through his engaging showmanship and—most blessedly—his own orchestral transcriptions of J.S. Bach.

In our era of “historically informed performance”—manifest in shrill, scratchy interpretations and usually advanced by those of comparable temperament—Stokowski’s huge orchestral transcriptions may seem somewhat out of place. But the solidity of Bach’s musical structures and idiom is such that it can hold up to a variety of approaches. Witness, for example, the Jazz Sebastian Bach albums by the Swingle Singers, or the abominable Switched on Bach synthesizer albums of the 1960’s. In light of such examples, Stokowki’s Bach seems downright purist, but this comparison proves very little—to gauge music by its historical “correctness” (as defined by scholarship’s latest capricious whimsy) entirely misses the point of the art. Ultimately, all music is meant to stimulate the mind and emotions of the listener. Bach wrote great music which does both of these things, and the emotion in his essential idiom is perhaps most directly expressed by charlatan transcriptions, in which the grand gestures of romanticism and the intense precision of baroque forms combine to make music of a most affecting and engaging type.

With notable exception to the Air on a G String—in which Stokowski’s syrupy sonorities miss the lovely innocence of the original—most every transcription and its performance is nearly ideal. The opening C minor Passacaglia and Fugue is a superb example of Stokowski’s deep, organ-like sound, in which—to paraphrase the conductor’s own words—the towering, ‘gothic architecture’ of the original is painted in broad strokes of dramatic color. Komm, süβer Tod and Mein Jesu, was vor Seelenweh both display this same “cathedral” sound, along with an attractive gleam to the strings and an overwhelming sense of deep, emotional piety.

But what’s more striking is just how natural Bach can sound in these romantic trappings. Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, from Bach’s cantata after the Lutheran hymn, uses a brass choir to great effect and is of a similar character to the Act I Prelude of Wagner’s Parsifal. And the “Little” G Minor Fugue—which initially uses a dialogue of reed voices to highlight the counterpoint—builds with an almost maniacal sense of inevitability, weighty without ever lagging, gradually adding orchestration until the fugal subject violently emerges in its final, crashing conclusion. This is music in an almost Beethoven-like spirit, in which the extreme development of material creates “operatic” drama where the “protagonist” finally prevails. In the case of this transcription, the “protagonist” is a maddeningly catchy little tune, and, apparently, a heaven storming villain with a talent for theatrics.

Other cuts display similarly theatrical qualities. The Toccata and Fugue in D minor—easily the best known of Stokowki’s Bach transcriptions—is very well done, well balanced between the drive and snap of his recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra and his later, more indulgent efforts for Decca. The Bourée from English Suite No. 2 is both graceful and muscular, and Stokowski’s practice of alternating the wind and string sections is used quite nicely. It’s also worth noting that the anonymous “Symphony Orchestra” is consistently very good, sounding impressively mature for what was probably just a pick up group. But then, Stokowski could do that.

The recorded sound is very clear and full, yielding very little to more modern technology. The bonus DVD includes an atmospheric performance of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, but frankly, it’s the blatant amount of previews for EMI’s other DVDs that make the extra disc worthwhile.

So, go ahead. Get the album, annoy your “historically informed” friends, and let the grand old wizard work his magic. It’s an utterly and supremely entertaining approach to music—there’s nothing quite like it.

Rating: A

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Puccini: Tosca - Callas/Stefano/Gobbi/Sabata

To be published next week in the Elmhurst College Leader.


Album: Puccini: Tosca
Artist(s): Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Victor De Sabata, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano

Music critics have long been fond of drolly referring to Tosca as a “shabby little shocker” and then misattributing the comment to George Bernard Shaw. No small wonder, then, that this Tosca has long been hailed as the “greatest” opera recording of the last century, even before such milestones as the Solti Ring and the Giulini Don Giovanni.

But are such superlatives justified? There have been many fine recordings of Tosca in the 50 years since this one, most with better recorded sound and many of them boasting excellent casts. Are they so clearly second-rate?

The truth is, it depends on how you think of opera. If perfect vocalism is your standard, this performance will not be a first choice. As adored singer Floria Tosca, Callas’ striking-but-not-beautiful voice is somewhat paradoxical, occasionally sacrificing legato for the sake of some dramatic effect or another. Similarly, Giuseppe Di Stefano’s golden, lyric tenor voice sounds hollow and pressed on top, most noticeably in the heroic Vittoria! of Act 2. And Gobbi’s voice is typically venomous, lacking any real heft or depth. Those seeking consistently beautiful, secure singing from beginning to end would do well to acquire the excellent sets of Tebaldi or Caballé, the latter featuring a young José Carreras in particularly fine voice.

Dramatically, however, this recording is likely unequalled, which is saying a lot in a story driven by murder, torture, attempted rape, and suicide. Callas plays Tosca as ideally as one could hope for—a hotheaded, passionate woman subject to conflicting fits of suspicion, vanity, vulnerability, white-hot anger, and the most deeply felt compassion. For example, her jealous outburst in Act 1, “Lo Neghi?” (“You deny it?), is just short of shrill and is most convincingly pissy. Conversely, Vissa d’arte is beautiful and perfectly paced—a masterful depiction of suffering, in which the cry to God at the end of the aria is a fearful but reverent plea for mercy. But perhaps most striking is the moment when Tosca stabs and then hisses at the dying Scarpia, “Muori! Muori! Muori!” (Die! Die! Die!), delivered so viciously you can almost see the blood on her hands.

Cavaradossi is always less important in this opera, but Giuseppe Di Stefano makes a good case for him. What Stefano’s Cavaradossi lacks in heroism he makes up for in beauty—with Stefano, we never forget that Cavaradossi is a lovesick artist. His two arias come off with great sentimentality and his Act III duet with Tosca, O dolci mani, displays some of the most ardent and beautiful singing ever recorded.

But Callas and Stefano are more than matched in the Baron Scarpia of Tito Gobbi. His trademark snarl is used to great effect, capable of both stentorian authority and warm, honeyed manipulation. This is the definitive Scarpia—a vile, slithering, sadistic animal in an aristocrat’s coat, who makes Darth Vader look kind of like a sissy. At the end of Act 1, Gobbi’s Te Deum is the most gripping in the catalogue, illustrating both his declamatory style and the thoughtfulness of his interpretation. To extract an example: Scarpia’s high note in the last phrase, “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” (“Tosca you make me forget God!), usually milked for melodrama, is here underplayed. Why? Because for Scarpia, this isn’t a fervent confession of evil; it’s just a statement, and it’s hardly a turning point for a villain so foul. In truth, Gobbi’s Scarpia sounds most fervent when he’s torturing Cavaradossi, where his gleeful snarling conveys the Baron’s sadism perfectly. But, almost as important, he also dies very well, shouting furiously and choking on his own blood in a pleasingly graphic way.

Victor De Sabata leads the orchestra in a reading of blistering, Italianate intensity. Every line of the score is sharply defined without ever sacrificing weight or visceral impact. Furthermore, everything is paced to create the most excruciating tension possible—when else has the orchestra so perfectly conveyed the desperation of Tosca’s confrontation with Scarpia? And when else has the ending of Tosca felt so physically, mercilessly traumatic? In Sabata’s hands, the orchestra does a most marvelous thing: it becomes another voice, telling the story as clearly as any one of the characters.

In all, this is a superb achievement that admirably lives up to its reputation. If you’ve never experienced opera as drama, this is the place to start.

Highly recommended.

Grade: A+


NOTE: Be sure to get this 1997 Callas Edition (still in print and readily available), rather than one of the subsequent poor remasterings.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Stephen Costello, James Valenti, Piotr Beczala, and Michael Spyres.

The first three already have something of a reputation, but the last is no less talented.

Google them if you haven't heard the names. They will be the future...mark my words.


EDIT: There's also much talk of this Stas Vitart fellow, but I need to hear him sing somewhere besides his living room before I can be sure.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Red Army Ensemble

To be published...soon-ish in the Elmhurst College Leader. Unsure what issue.


Album: Red Army Ensemble
Artist(s): Col. Boris Alexandrov, Soviet Army Chorus, Soviet Army Band

Yes, it’s that chorus. Whether you know them as the Red Army Choir, the Soviet Army Chorus, or the Alexandrov Choir, it is indeed the same ensemble that performed with the Leningrad Cowboys in songs like “Gimme all your Lovin” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

But don’t judge them by their mediocre YouTube videos (or by the Leningrad Cowboys’ hair). This Great Recordings of the Century album captures the chorus at its absolute peak, way back in 1963 when the name “Red Army” actually meant something. Any cliché about Russian army choirs exists due to these gentlemen, and whether it be opera, folk, or pop music, this release illustrates why. Despite the album’s occasionally corny programming, the singing displays a truly militaristic level of discipline and “comradeship.” Or to put it another way—they’re tight as hell.

And what they truly excel at is pure sound. The basses are quite capable of a good subterranean rumble, the tenors are quite secure in their top notes, tuttis are scandalously abused, and very often there are as many as eight parts singing at once. What results is a steely, harmonically rich, masculine sound that is the aural equivalent of a roundhouse to the head.

For example, the Soldier’s Chorus from The Decembrists (Shaporin’s opera based on the first Russian Revolution of 1825) is delightfully bombastic, and displays a dynamic range wide enough to drive a truck through. Similarly, Song of the Volga Boatmen is taken at a brisk, militaristic speed and not only avoids sounding like a dirge, but capably shows off the physical impact of the choir’s tenors. And Kalinka—a song long associated with this ensemble—comes off perfectly, with its rapid accelerations and crescendos executed with breathtaking precision.

The soloists, too, are uniformly excellent, each demonstrating formidable technique rooted in the classic “glottal” Slavic sound. While there are far too many soloists to list, one of the standouts is Evgeny Belaiaev, whose bright, ringing tenor voice surely missed its greater calling in opera. His sustained high notes in the extremely Russian You Are Always Beautiful are fully the equal of most any operatic tenor singing today, and likely superior to most of them. The song itself is upbeat and cheery, demonstrating not only impressive breath control on the part of Belaiaev, but a convincing and necessary panache.

But even aside from objective or technical measurements of excellence, this ensemble is top notch. As should be expected, every Slavic selection is thoroughly idiomatic (balalaikas are used everywhere) and performed with trademark Russian sentiment. Some are very good, many are eminently forgettable, but all are unlikely to ever be better recorded. Among the better selections as yet unmentioned, Black Eyebrows is appropriately melancholic, Snowflakes is sincere and devoted, and The Little Bells is beautifully wistful. Ukrainian Poem, which relays the story of the Ukraine’s liberation from the Nazis, is probably the best cut on the entire album. Bass Aleksei Sergeiev sings with great pathos and the choir’s entrance is appropriately spectacular—the result is a six-minute piece of music rendered as epic drama.

But what is perhaps most interesting about this album is the choice to record various English-language songs. Annie-Laurie, the well loved Scottish ballad, is given perhaps its best choral treatment on record, beating out even the various renditions of Anglo-Saxon groups. Again, Evgeny Belaiaev makes an appearance as the soloist, and his voice floats beautifully above the rich, swelling a capella sound of the chorus. Yes, it’s a Soviet military choir singing with a thick Russian accent on a Scottish song (which has a Scottish accent written into the lyrics!), but somehow, it’s still convincing, and undeniably beautiful.

This is not so say that many of the English cuts aren’t kitschy—indeed, they are. The accents, after all, render the English nearly undecipherable. It’s a long way to Tipperary is rendered “Eet’s uhh lowng vhey too Tihperharry,” and the brass sound like Mariachi music for a moment, but the effect is hilarious. The fact that they can pull this tune off at all is in itself impressive.

So, is it really a Great Recording of the Century? Yes, if you dig the style and the offbeat program. Like other titles in this series, it’s currently selling in the $7-$12 range. Strongly recommended for choral enthusiasts and vodka drinkers.

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Brahms: 21 Hungarian Dances - Abbado/VPO

Destined for 2/26/08 issue of the Elmhurst College Leader. I think.

Someday, I'm going to get my paragraphs on here to indent when I want them to and not just when they choose to be cooperative. Stinking technology.


Album: Brahms: 21 Hungarian Dances

Artist(s): Claudio Abbado, Vienna Philharmonic’s “on demand” service is a Godsend for serious collectors. Boasting around 5200 titles and adding new ones all the time, the service provides exact reproductions of long out-of-print CDs along with their original artwork and inserts. This Deutsche Grammophon recording has long been a favorite among listeners, and Arkivmusic was wise to license it for their catalogue.

Claudio Abbado’s conducting is relentlessly driven and immaculately executed. The Vienna Philharmonic, then as now, was arguably the best orchestra in the world, and they play perfectly. And of course, Abbado has long been known as a Brahms conductor.

Sounds like a winning combination! And in some of the more vigorous dances, Abbado’s approach does work extremely well. No. 1, for example, has just the right amount of snap, and is somewhat reminiscent of Toscanini’s 1953 recording (though without the latter’s trademark transparency). The famous No. 5 is suitably energetic and makes great use of dynamic contrast, albeit without a great deal of humor or variation in tempo. No. 10 leaps out at you like gangbusters, and it is here that Abbado really hits his stride—the tempo is so fast it’s almost funny. He apparently takes the presto marking very seriously, and the resulting frenzy is downright thrilling.

And yet, this album is only half successful. Recall that this music is largely based on Hungarian folk melodies—but Abbado’s conception lacks any sense of these origins. For comparison, take István Bogár’s reading of dance No. 3 on the Naxos label. For Bogár, the opening theme is reedy, lackadaisical, and utterly charming; for Abbado, this same theme is light, cleanly articulated, and somewhat detached. Where Bogár’s conducting sparkles cheerfully, Abbado’s gleams like stainless steel.

This is not to say that every dance must be infused with a self-aware rustic quaintness. No. 14, for example, was an original composition by Brahms and has a sufficiently urbane feel to fit Abbado’s less sentimental conception nicely. But even in the similarly “inauthentic” dance No. 11, Abbado falls short. The lovely Brahmsian melody is handled by Bogár with dignity, warmth, and an aching sense of melancholy. By comparison, Abbado’s reading is just that: a reading. Effective but unengaging.

And this is the general trend throughout the album. Abbado consistently turns in high-speed and technically excellent performances, with the orchestra heavily balanced in favor of the strings. The result is big-boned, driven, colorless, and often devoid of charm. In some cases, the phrases are so abruptly articulated that any sense of flow is lost, and rests begin to feel like short, grinding halts. In this regard, Abbado is the only conductor I know of who can take one of the world’s greatest orchestras and make Brahms sounds like musical chairs. And Deutsche Grammophon’s harsh 80’s sonics don’t help matters.

In short, Abbado has his good moments, but not enough of them to make the entire cycle a first choice. Unless you’re a fan of Abbado or particularly love technically-excellent orchestras, stick to Bogár’s idiomatic and dirt-cheap cycle with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra. He’s even Hungarian.

Rating: B

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Previn conducts Debussy

To be published 2/12/08 in the Elmhurst College Leader.


Album: Debussy: Images/Prélude à l'apres-midi d'un faune

Artist(s): André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra (LSO)

André Previn is one of those conductors who never achieved the god-like status of many contemporaries, yet consistently managed to turn in excellent and well-balanced performances. Furthermore, his affiliation with the London Symphony Orchestra is one of the better partnerships on record, and their collaborations are well represented on this and other Great Recordings of the Century discs.

Yet, what is likely this release’s greatest strength is its digital sound. Something of a marvel in 1979, this was EMI’s first venture into digital recording, and the album won Gramophone awards that year for both the performance and the sound engineering. If digital sound is an overarching concern, then, this release may be seen as the main competitor for Pierre Boulez’s excellent Debussy recordings on Deutsche Grammophon.

The present performance of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is easily one of the finest on record. There is a lingering, indulgent, sensuous quality to the entire thing, which is entirely appropriate to the “mood paintings” of Doret’s lusting faun. The LSO’s sound is warm and full, and the strings are surprisingly rich, lending greater credence to the “preponderant influence of Wagner” alleged at the work’s premiere. Yet, Previn maintains a surprising transparency throughout the performance, thereby managing to aptly balance the exotic with the cerebral.

This same, palpable exoticism may be heard in the Images. Previn’s Gigues gets much closer to the English countryside than Boulez ever did (Keel Row actually sounds folksy here). Similarly, Ibéria conveys all the ardor of the Spain Debussy had in mind, but Boulez fares surprisingly well in comparison; where Previn uses a wide palette of colors and textures to portray the exotic, Boulez’s precise, crystalline intensity has an exoticism all its own. And Previn’s Rondes de Printemps is invigorating indeed, played with an eager, youthful impetus that leaves most other versions coughing in the dust. The liner notes claim that most of the cuts were done in single takes, and this energetic Printemps seems likely to be one of them.

The Nocturnes are somewhat less striking. Nuages works very well and is certainly be preferred over Boulez’s too-transparent rendition, but neither version truly captures the feeling of clouds. Fêtes is animated and played with a bludgeoning sort of gusto, but is not terribly cheery—a real shame, given the warm, upbeat approach Previn brought to the Images. But Sirénes is excellent, and the rich sound maintained through the album is again used to great effect. One can almost feel the ocean—waves roll lazily across the strings, swell through the horns, and come to majestic rest, all while the sirens sing with a distant, lovely, alluring femininity. It’s utterly splendid.

So, which to get, Previn or Boulez? While extremely different, both are equally valid approaches. Boulez’s precise, transparent style offers much to be admired, and his more complete survey of Debussy may give him an edge (particularly since his collection includes the magnificent La Mer). But Previn’s full-blooded renditions are certainly gorgeous. So why not get both? It’s great music. And at the moment, copies on Amazon appear to be starting in the $4-5 range. Such a deal.

Rating: A-