Schumann: Papillons, Blumenstück, Novellette; Novaes, Arrau, Sokolov

Since my last post involved some Schumann piano pieces, I thought I should link to some performances of them:

Papillons, Op. 2, Guiomar Novaes, piano:

Blumenstück, Opus 19 in Db major, Claudio Arrau, piano:

Novellette, Op. 18 No. 8 in F# minor.  Grigory Sokolov, piano:

Orion Weiss with the Salzburg Marionettes: Schumann, Debussy

Not sure why this has been sitting around as a draft, but I'm belatedly posting it now; good music is always relevant:

Really glad I finally decided to go see and hear the Salzburg Marionette Theatre with pianist Orion Weiss play Los Alamos on Nov. 1 (2014), because Weiss' Schumann was a revelation, and his Debussy superb as well.  With relatively spare sets and costuming, the Marionettes accompanied Weiss in Schumann's Papillons, Opus 2, a succession of short dance movements bookended  by an introduction and finale.  The Marionettes' storyline seemed to involve a love, or at least flirtation, triangle.  Relatively lighthearted, as was the music (at least for Schumann).  The music was my main focus and it held my attention.  Superb music, superbly played.  Perhaps even better were the two longer pieces, played without Marionette action, the Blumenstück in Db, Op. 19, and the Novelette no. 8 in F# minor.  I'm no expert on Schumann's piano music, but I have the impression that many of Schumann's longer works in general can be difficult to interpret effectively---it is easy for them to appear unstructured, longwinded, and/or even a bit repetitive.  No such problem here.  Long developmental passages had a definite trajectory, and both on the level of phrases and the overall structure, Weiss penetrated to the musical meaning of the piece instead of just letting the notes unspool.   When I spoke with Orion after the concert he mentioned that it can be challenging to make the main theme in these pieces still meaningful, and bring something new to it, each time it recurs; he definitely succeeded.  I've sometimes felt like the Los Alamos Concert Association's Steinway D can sound not quite brilliant enough, and perhaps like the action is a bit heavy, slowing things down a bit.  Not so much recently, though.  I enjoy hearing how different that piano can sound each time a different artist plays it, and Weiss got a great tone out of it, balanced between brilliance and purity and warmth and complexity, and played with great facility though not in a technically showy manner.  (I suspect that just to sound at ease in these pieces is quite a technical challenge!).

Unfortunately although Weiss has quite a few CDs out, for example Scarlatti sonatas, and Rhapsody in Blue (on different CDs!) on Naxos, his Schumann is not available on disc.  If he ever puts out a disc of Schumann, I'll snap it up; in the meanwhile I'm going to investigate the piano music in more depth.

After intermission, we were treated to Debussy's relatively rarely performed La Boîte a Joujoux (The Toy Box).  This was explicitly composed as music for a marionette ballet, and the sets were much more elaborate and beautifully done, the music and action perfectly integrated.  The music, appropriately, is a tad less adventurous than the great piano-only works like the Preludes, with perhaps more standard sounding pentatonic and whole tone material, and a bit less complex and coloristic harmony, a bit more emphatic and regular rhythm at times (and explicit punctuation of the action), but still, very rewarding, and perfectly played.  Atogether a wonderful, transporting evening of music and stagecraft.

Addendum:  I found this Nov. 2 post by the piano technician for LACA--- if it refers to the previous night's concert, as the photo of the artist also suggests, then I join Orion in thanking him for a great job getting the piano ready.

Bach, Johannes-Passion, Bachchor und Orchester Hannover, Marktkirche

I attended a performance of J.S. Bach's Passion according to St. John (Johannespassion) by the  Hannover Bach Choir and Orchestra last night at the Marktkirche in the central market square of Hannover's old town. I may or may not have listened my way through this work on LP as a youngster, and probably did overhear it on the stereo growing up, but this is probably my first careful listen to the whole piece. (About two hours, no intermission though a brief episode of tuning between the two sections.)  A very rewarding if, obviously, fairly solemn two hours.  Really superb choral singing with the different vocal parts sufficiently distinct and the words very clear (well, especially with the aid of a program given my limited German) but the choir unified.  Remarkably dramatic effect when the choir portrays the crowds present at the high priest's and Pilate's interrogations of Jesus, contrasting with the choir's other main role as expressing Christian sentiments from a point of view that is not necessarily within the narrative aspect of the piece (but might also be taken so, as expressing another aspect of experience of some in the crowd).  The latter is usually in hymn-like chorales, but also often (as in the opening "Herr, unser Herrscher dessen Ruhm") in more complex and extended episodes with more involvement of the orchestra.  The visible wind instruments were baroque in appearance, there was a large lute, and I suspect the string section and most or all of the rest of the orchestra was original style instruments as well.  Tempos were relatively fast, and the resulting sound was excellent, though for some reason the orchestra came across with less clarity than the singers---the relatively reverberant acoustic of the tall, relatively open North German gothic brick hall church maybe having something to do with that. On balance I think the original instruments and the chosen tempos gave a somewhat rough, unprettified, but still accurate and well-played, effect that worked extremely well in the piece, accentuating its seriousness.  Some passages, in which the choir and orchestra engaged in extended contrapuntal reflection upon a dramatic development, or expression of the crowd's intention or reaction, with voices and instruments becoming a swirl of fast-moving harmonies and passing tones, attained an eerie and dramatic effect that reminded me of some century postserialism, maybe Ligeti or Penderecki.   The soloists were really excellent and did everything well.  Such a performance is definitely not about attention-getting individual vocals but all the soloists did have, in performances that were consistent throughout, some songs that really stood out in expressing key moments in the drama.   Alto Christian Rohrbach has a beautiful clear voice and delivered "Es ist vollbracht!" perfectly; the soprano soloist (either Miriam Meyer or Nadine Dilger; two sopranos are listed in the program) was especially affecting (though never overdoing it) with "Zerfließe, mein Herze" ("Dein Jesus ist tot!"); bass Albrecht Pohl did a great job of handling a variety of vocal tasks in combining the role of Pilate with many additional bass arias.  Johannes Strauß was especially outstanding as the Evangelist---he has an amazingly clear and beautiful tenor voice, deployed with perfect control.

Of course an extended piece like this with religious and dramatic aspects is an occasion for plenty of reflection on musical aspects of the piece but also on these in relation to the human condition.  One of the more interesting aspects of this piece for me was the amount of attention given to the political and social aspect of the story: the interaction with Pilate (I don't fully understand what's going on here yet), the issue about Jesus being called "King of the Jews" but asserting "My kingdom is not of this world", the high priest and the servant, and later the crowd after the exchange with Pilate "Shall I crucify your king?" "We have no King but the Emperor", calling for Jesus' crucifixion.  (There seems to be an emphasis on "the Jews" delivering Jesus to Pilate and calling for his crucifixion in this text.)

A superb, clear, controlled and well-thought-out performance and a perfect way to get better acquainted with this serious, reflective, many-faceted masterwork of Bach's.

Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts---Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Oxford

Just came from an extraordinary concert at the Sheldonian Theatre in which the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford performed a version of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, with two pieces from composer and baritone Roderick Williams' Oxford Blues Service inserted in the Sacred Concert running order.  This constituted the second half of the program; I'll perhaps write in another post about the first half, which featured many good things but a sound balance that was slightly problematic at times, with the band occasionally drowning out the excellent guest soloist, alto saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock.  (I can't allude to the first half, though, without mentioning the really superb singing of first-year Olivia Williams in "Lookin' Back" and "Feelin' Good".)  In the second half, the balance was suddenly almost perfect, the bass acoustic throughout, the swing consistent and unforced, and immediately with the meditative baritone saxophone solo, originally performed by Harry Carney, that introduces "In the Beginning God" we were immersed in Duke Ellington's world of sound and his personal take on religion and spirituality.  Besides the excellence of the band, choir, and soloists, the conducting and preparation of the musicians by Schola conductor James Burton was clearly crucial to the success of this performance.  Nigel Hitchcock's beautiful alto playing was another crucial ingredient, but the regular band members who played key solos, like the baritone sax in "In the Beginning", the clarinet in "Freedom", the plunger-muted trumpet in "The Shepherd" did themselves and the Duke proud as well.  The Roderick Williams pieces "Gray Skies Passing Over" and "The Lord's Prayer"  fit in perfectly, being in a somewhat harmonically lush jazz-to-mid-twentieth-century pop vocal style very similar to parts of the Ellington vocal score, but more contrapuntal, with, I think, an echo of English, and even perhaps Renaissance, church music.

Besides getting real swing from the ensemble, Burton kept things relaxed but accurate, with a real dynamic range, the band in balance with the soloists (Ellington's writing presumably helps here too), expressive phrasing and control over the pace and development of each piece.  "Freedom" was another standout, done with intense feeling and great energy, drawing roars of approval from the audience.  But all the movements were executed superbly, and there were many such moments.  The tap-dancing of Annette Walker, in "David Danced Before The Lord" was another highlight.

This was an utterly professional-sounding performance that felt infused with the passion of people who are together reaching a level they may or may not have reached before, in the zone, giving the audience a musical experience not to be forgotten.  The Sacred Concerts may be a work best experienced live---it was certainly immensely effective, enjoyable, powerful, and moving in this performance.  Bass player and alto Lila Chrisp who is in both groups apparently had the idea that they should join forces in this piece.  I'm very grateful to everyone involved for making this happen and really filling the Sheldonian with the spirit---especially the spirit of Duke Ellington and his band.

 

Des Américains à Paris

Via Ned Rorem, a really nice photo and audio montage promoting a program of a cappella choral music by some of Nadia Boulanger's American pupils: Ives, Copland, Bernstein, Barber, Stravinsky, Copland, Reich, Glass.   If I were in Luxembourg or deep Southwest France in March, I'd definitely go out of my way to hear this. High-resolution photos; it's worth making the video full-screen.

Viet Cuong, Moth

For at least a few more days you can stream Moth, by classical composer Viet Cuong, performed, at the Midwest Band Clinic, by the Brooklyn Wind Symphony conducted by Jeff Ball, on Performance Today.  It is also available, probably more permanently, at his website and on his Soundcloud page.  I like the piece a lot.  The performance is excellent, really remarkable for an all-volunteer ensemble.  The style is fairly modern for PT, which is to say it is, roughly, in the idiom of tonal Western classical music from the 1920s and 1930s, with perhaps a smidgin of minimalism.  At first listen I thought it made clear use of the language of Stravinksy, especially Petrouchka and Le Sacre du Printemps, as well as of something resembling the post-Stravinsky and neoclassical phase of the 1930s, say, Milhaud, Poulenc, Constant Lambert, but without descending into pastiche.  On my second listen, with better sound, I was a bit taken aback by what I perceive as strong influence from Le Sacre, both in form and in content.   I am less startled by that after further listens.  Form-wise, it intersperses sections with ostinato, theme repetition (certainly key ingredients of Sacre), and other tension building devices (like modulation, especially stepwise upward modulation, which I don't think are found much in Sacre), with more pensive interludes, often tinged with a minor feel.  Just that kind of alternation is a main structural principal of Sacre.  As my references to neoclassicism and modulation above might suggest, there's somewhat more standard tonal content in Cuong's piece, thought it also has very strong Stravinsky-like "modal" or scalar elements, and occasional vaguely Iberian-sounding moments.  (As an aside, just thinking about harmony in Le Sacre makes me wonder if there is any standard dominant-to-tonic resolution at all in the piece---I think not, or not much.)

Cuong knows how to recombine and play with motives, scales, harmonic tropes and other elements to create interest, unify the piece and move things along in a satisfying way.  He shows this from the outset, with a clever motive consisting of a rising and descending scalar figure, played against a similar but inverted figure (or perhaps they are both fragments of the same extended figure that they evolve into, running up and down on flute, changing direction at different pitches), then relaxing into some Iberian-ish sounds.  At 1:30 we get melodic material very reminiscent of Le Sacre, and around 2:10, I think, the first hint of a four-note figure, which one might notate 3 4 2 1 in minor, also very reminiscent of Sacre (indeed it is very close---and would be identical if the last two notes were interchanged---to the initial four notes of a motive, 3 4 1 2 3 1 in minor with the last two notes twice as long as the preceding four, found in Sacre) that will become increasingly important.  Much of this material is developed and cleverly  combined through what sound to me like various key changes.  Around 3:30 things get more urgent, drums, with ostinato and repetition, especially of the four-note theme, and rising modulation.  (I wonder if there is some influence of John Adams' Harmonielehre here; I am reminded of it, but haven't listened to the Adams piece recently enough to tell.  Or maybe I should just can the speculation about influence.)  Around 4:10, quickly peak tension gives way to a mellow contrapuntal woodwind interlude, and there follows a long stretch with some alternation of faster and more complex passages, building a bit more each time, with pullbacks to this sort of mellowness.  Around 6:30 things seem to get more organized for a final buildup.  The ending, with an upward brass gliss emerging out of the ensemble to a momentarily held note, and then a sudden drop to tympani-punctuated chord, reminds me a little bit of Le Sacre too.

The program for this piece seems to be the gyrating flight of a moth before, and eventual immolation in, a flame, which is also in obvious parallel with Le Sacre's program, of a virgin obliged to dance herself to death in a pagan rite.  So I suspect the structural and idiomatic parallels to Le Sacre are no accident, although the overall tone is much lighter, and at 8'38 in this performance, the piece is of course much shorter.  I interpret these parallels, especially as dextrously integrated with harmonic movement at times quite uncharacteristic of Le Sacre, as a bit of a cheeky and light-hearted tour-de-force of compositional virtuosity.  The thematic material does have interest, but might be a little more on the generic side than ideal in places.  That is not really a problem in this piece.   I enjoyed some of the other pieces on his site but did find some of them a bit lacking in gripping melody.  Sound and Smoke I and II sound tailor-made for something like a fantasy movie soundtrack, and are extremely well done.  Part I sounds just as you might think from the subtitle "feudal castle lights", while Part II I found more distinctive.  I have a feeling that with some even stronger melodic material, perhaps some passages with some longer more sustained lines, Cuong could be really dangerous.  Hopefully Cuong will come up with more gripping melodic material in whatever way is necessary, whether from moments of personal inspiration or by ripping it off with exquisite taste à la Stravinsky if necessary.  (I exaggerate, Stravinsky fans... peace, I am one of you.)  Some of Cuong's other pieces show ability in more contemporary idioms.  He is only 24, a graduate student in composition at Princeton.  He is clearly getting a lot of recognition, as the list of awards, commissions, and performances on his webpage shows.  So he probably has a good career assured.  I hope he has his sights fixed on greatness; I'll be very interested to see what comes next.

Bonus:  On that December 12 PT stream, available for a few more days, the Brahms serenade (end of the 2nd hour) performed by the Sinfonia da Camera, if played on a good stereo, is magic.  (On first hearing through a cheap radio I was unimpressed.  Maybe it is all about the bass, although I think an undistorted treble helps too.)

Paul Groves, Joseph Illick at Santa Fe Festival of Song: Duparc, Britten, Liszt, Rachmaninoff

On August 8th, we were treated to singing of transcendent beauty from tenor Paul Groves, with superb accompaniment by pianist Joseph Illick, in deeply felt and well-conceived interpretations of  songs by Henri Duparc, Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Benjamin Britten's wonderful and imaginative arrangements of British Isles folksongs.  The recital was part of the Santa Fe Festival of Song, a project of Performance Santa Fe (the organization formerly known as the Santa Fe Concert Association) in which singers who are in town to perform at the Opera give art song recitals.  Groves is Florestan in Santa Fe's Fidelio this year, and after hearing him in this recital, I'm eagerly anticipating his performance in that role.

Groves' voice is sweet and clear, but very powerful when he wants it to be, without losing any clarity or getting ragged at volume.  His control over breath, and dynamic range are amazing and deployed to great interpretive effect.  I don't believe that there is a single ideal way of interpreting most songs (though of course some songs may support a more limited range of workable approaches than others)...but I will say that Groves' performances of almost all of these songs were sheer perfection---while one could imagine a different approach being equally successful if equally well-executed, I mostly couldn't imagine anyone singing these songs better than Groves did here. He used the full range of vocal expression available to one with a top-of-the-line trained operatic voice. While a more subdued approach, with climaxes not quite as operatic in their intensity, could work equally well in many of these songs, and indeed provide a perfect opportunity for superb artistry by those who don't quite have the unbelievable volume and projection required for major-stage opera, I am not one who takes the view that operatic intensity should be banished from art-song interpretation. Groves' performance here was an illustration of how perfect and appropriate an approach informed by operatic experience, and empowered by an operatic technique and voice, can be in the art song.

The concert began with Duparc.  I thought the first song, Le manoir de Rosemonde, came off as perhaps a tad too intense and vocally operatic an interpretation, though flawlessly sung.  This might have been in part a matter of gauging the room sound; the Santa Fe United Methodist Church sanctuary is of modest size, with a relatively live and reflective acoustic.  What followed ranged from superb to sublime.  Extase was languorous and hypnotic, Soupir serene and heartfelt, Phidylé an entrancing mélange of rapture and whatever the right word is to express a slightly wistful, mildly sensual, very french kind of elegant wallowing in wistful nostalgia.

Following this, a definite change of pace with five Benjamin Britten settings of British folksongs. A substantial musical contribution from Britten here, with sometimes humorous, often very pretty and always very original settings that enhance, rather than working at cross-purposes to, the feeling and folk flavor of these songs. The Brisk Young Widow had verve and humour. In Sally in Our Alley, Groves did a superb job of putting across a broadly humorous, multi-verse narrative, with an unexpectedly poignant turn in the end. As pointed and effective an artistic meditation on class division as you will find anywhere, while avoiding dourness and simultaneously celebrating the joy of life.  Early One Morning was quiet and poignant, beautifully shaped by Groves, while in The Lincolnshire Poacher and Ca' the Yowes Groves used the more robust side of his voice to great effect in an earthier vein. At the reception following the concert, Groves remarked these Britten folksong settings are actually the most difficult to sing of the works on the program, because of their choppier, less legato line if I understood correctly. (Speculating, this may in part be a peculiarity of singing in English, at least compared to the more vowel-centered nature of French and even Russian (and of course Italian and even German, although neither of these two languages were used in this program)). Of course, that comparison may be more likely to apply once one has put in the hours and years of work necessary to do long lines with the rock-solid breath support and control, and imperturbable legato where necessary, required by the French and Russian-language works on the program.

Next up was a group of four Victor Hugo poems set by Franz Liszt, ranging through a wide range of moods and emotions, from the flirtatious humor of Comment, disaient-ils, to the over-the-top protestations of love in Enfant, si j'etais roi, to the long-lined, sensual love poetry of Oh! quand je dors  (another case where the adjective "sublime" applies to Groves' rendering).  Very colorful, sometimes dramatic, settings of these poems.  Excellent music that I did not know before this recital, and that I was very glad to be made aware of, especially in interpretations of this caliber.

The recital concluded with three songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  In the Silence of the Night (Fet), How Fair this Spot (Galin), and Oh Never Sing to Me Again (Pushkin). Again perfectly sung, with focused and specific portrayal of emotion, startling in their beauty and impact.

For the encore, Groves brought out baritone Kostas Smoriginas for an unexpected treat---the duet "Au Fond du Temple Saint" from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. They took it perhaps a tad faster than I think optimal, but did a fabulous job---Groves' vocal control, and ability to do high, soft, and sweet as well as powerful and passionate was a key here, as was Smoriginas' incredibly deep, full, and powerful baritone, depth and darkness balanced by plenty of high-in-the-mask, projecting resonance that did not shade at all into brittleness.  Smoriginas is Escamillo in Santa Fe's Carmen this season; I will not hear Carmen until its last performance, but based on this duet, Smoriginas has just the voice this role needs, and should be amazing in it.  In many recordings I have of this aria, the baritone recedes a bit into the mix compared with the tenor (who is a bit more the star of this aria)---so it was great to hear the baritone part so clearly in this classic romance-meets-bromance potboiler. When the tenor and baritone united in singing the melody in sync partway through, the effect was thrilling.

At the reception I overheard Mr. Groves thanking the organizers for the opportunity to give a recital while in Santa Fe, and lamenting that while opera singers love to do recitals, there are not as many opportunities for them as there were even as recently as the 1990s, when he could do lengthy recital tours in Europe and elsewhere. Listen up, agents, impresarios, and program committees because some of us are on the lookout for the kind of intense and transporting experience of aesthetic perfection one gets from hearing a singer of the caliber of Paul Groves up close in recital.

 

 

Maria Stuarda, with Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Gianattasio at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden

July 18th: my first time at Covent Garden, for the Royal Opera production (joint with Barcelona, the Theâtre des Champs-Elysées, and the Polish National Opera) of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda.  The fashion for reviving some of the lesser-known bel canto operas seems as strong as ever these days, especially with singers like Joyce DiDonato available to star in them.  This one was very much worth doing.  The opera is not perfect dramatically, but neither is it devoid of drama.  Of course we know how it's going to end, but the first act generates suspense over whether Elizabeth will meet with Mary, how they will interact, and especially what will happen to Roberto, Mary's lover and apparently one of Elizabeth's favorites too.  (I'm no expert on the history, but the libretto was adapted from a Walter Scott novel or play and is, I think, none too accurate historically.)  The final scene goes on perhaps a bit too long, Mary's final forgiveness of Elizabeth and lengthy exhortations, following her final confession to Talbot, to the assembled crowd and to Roberto to forgive her and enable peace and prosperity in the British dominions strains credulity a bit, seeming a bit corny and overpious.  The music is often strong here, but not uniformly so, Mary's prayer with crowd response seemed weak in comparison with similar scenes in other works of the era, e.g. the transcendent prayer scene in Rossini's Maometto Secundo.

A long first scene features Elizabeth, then others, especially Roberto, in colloquy with her.  Mary doesn't appear until well into the act, after a mini-intermission (lights up for a five-minute scene change) in the first act.  Carmen Gianattasio carried this portion strongly---her coloratura technique seemed quite secure to me, her voice pure and unstrained even at  high volume or high pitch.  Pretty good characterization too---her Elizabeth did seem a bit petulant at times, frayed by the stress of her position, but I guess it's tough to be Queen.  Sometimes she seemed slightly detached from the role, possibly because the attention to superb execution of demanding singing kept her from losing herself in the part.  Ismael Jordi as Roberto also came off well vocally, although to my ears, a bit "sung", sometimes phrasing with ever-so-slightly exaggerated flourishes.  But no vocal roughness, a  tone with good body and clarity, good projection, and pretty good characterization and intensity although again perhaps not inhabiting the role as completely as he could have.  But a singer I hope to hear again, whose presence in a cast I'd consider a definite attraction.

The production made some questionable choices, possibly in trying to keep to a budget... full Elizabethan costume for the women, especially Elizabeth, was a good choice, but it seemed weird to combine it with dark waistcoats and suits on the men, possibly of Edwardian vintage like the massive leather-upholstered couches and wood panelling that furnished the supposed Royal palace.  Elizabeth was portrayed as a bit on the vulgar side, especially when she rips off Roberto's shirt and runs her hands all over him in a jealous fit.  This lead to a long bout of shirtless singing by Roberto, well sung but the tableau unfortunately reminiscent of a Chippendales billboard.  A bit tacky, but perhaps effective in putting over a certain take on Elizabeth and inducing queasiness at her harassment of Roberto.

While the first part of the first act was an example of extremely well-sung, if somewhat oddly staged, opera, the appearance of DiDonato as Maria at the midpoint of the first act was the operatic equivalent of engaging warp drive.  Her first aria was a lament at being imprisoned, but suffused---at least in my recollection of it--- more by a mood of reverie and remembrance of lost pleasures and beauty than a mood of grief.  Stunningly beautiful singing, the more so because not especially showy technically and not exploiting the hotter emotions.  There may well have been technically very difficult things here, too---I don't really recall, but certainly soft high passages may have been in play---but if so they were executed so effortlessly that the focus was on the character and the music.

DiDonata was excellent in Rossini's La Donna del Lago (another bel-canto-era Walter Scott-based opera) last summer in Santa Fe, but she sounded even better here, perhaps in part due to the superb acoustics of Covent Garden, which may well be the best of any major opera house I've been in  this regard.  The open sides at Santa Fe may make it hard for the sound to penetrate with full vibrancy to the cheap seats I usually occupy at the back of the main floor, whereas even in the very moderately-priced Upper Amphiteatre center section (next stop is the roof, but having a straight-ahead view of the stage instead of looking sideways out of a box was a blessing) the orchestral and vocal sound was clear and detailed, with perfectly adequate volume, sweet but with no loss of clarity.

Complete technical control and vocal security enabled her to be totally absorbed in the role...the effect was that she had become the character, rather than consciously acting it---whether or not this effect was achieved in part by conscious real-time effort or whether she was "in the zone" by dint of intense past effort mastering the role being immaterial.  This level of performance continued for the rest of the opera, making it for the most part extremely compelling theatrically and musically, despite the usual uneven level of musical inspiration expected from a less-performed bel canto opera, and some dramatic weakness in the second act.  Occasional stretches of stereotyped and routine bel canto writing were often lent interest by the drama involved, and there were plenty of passages with much more musical interest, inextricably entwined, as is so important in opera, with the drama.

To mention just a few such highlights, beyond Mary's first scene in the prison: the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is of course classic, both Mary's controlled, but intense, pleading for mercy and then her startlingly intense outburst of anger when she has decided that Elizabeth cannot be moved, and reacts to Elizabeth's insult.  I found out later that censors required these words be cut from the original production, though soprano Maria Malibran sang them anyway in the first performance (leading, after a few more performances, to the production being shut down).    One didn't need to know this history for it to be a visceral thrill and shock when Mary let loose with "Figlia impura di Bolena, parli tu di disonore?  Meretrice indegna e oscena, in te cada il mio rossore. Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!"  (Impure daughter of Boleyn, you speak of dishonor?  Worthless, obscene whore, I blush for you.  The English throne is profaned, vile bastard, by your foot!).

The scene in which Mary confesses to Talbot (extremely well sung and characterized by Matthew Rose) was another highlight, especially the swift darkening of mood when Mary gives in to Talbot's insistence that she confront her past crimes (alluding, possibly, to collusion in the murder of her first husband).  It's the darker highlights that seem to have stuck in my memory, but there were plenty of moments of more positive passion that were outstanding as well.

All the singers were at least excellent---I didn't feel like the opera was losing out from weakness in any aspect of the musical presentation.  In the scenes with the counselor---probably Guglielmo Cecil---urging Elizabeth against clemency, both Elizabeth and Guglielmo really made palpable and plausible a feeling of being trapped into denying Mary mercy---these ex-monarchs, granted clemency, are all too likely to come back and menace you.

The contemporary, white-tiled hospital-like setting of the execution chamber, while continuing the theme of random anachronism, was effective in one respect---reminding us that the current practice of capital punishment is not all that different from the stump-and-ax execution block of Elizabethan times.  DiDonato's stamina and superb singing carried the long, long final scene well, although not completely compensating for the length of the scene, which somewhat undermined the drama.  Still, it prompted plenty of meditations on politics, religion, personality, history, and the meaning of this drama in the milieu of early 19th century Italy, in which Catholicism and tradition was presumably  confronting Romanticism and republicanism.

If this show comes to your town---as it I believe it will to Barcelona, beginning in December ---it's not to be missed.  Strong singing all around, a fairly dramatically effective and psychologically interesting work, with attractive and often striking music throughout, and an unbelievably charismatic and inspired dramatic and vocal performance by Joyce DiDonato---a chance to see and hear a true operatic superstar, and to understand why she's in that category, for how profoundly she deepens the dramatic, psychological, and musical impact of the work.

 

 

 

 

Morning listening: Tchaikowsky and Piazzola on APM's Performance Today

I take Astor Piazzola's work very much on a composition by composition basis.... some of it leaves me relatively unmoved, other pieces I really enjoy.  I really enjoyed the Tangata for saxophone quartet, played by the Ancia Saxophone Quartet at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  21'30 in this feed from Performance Today (you'll need to click on Hour 2 on the RHS of the page; stream should be available for at least a week).  I thought it might be Poulenc, then changed my mind to Piazzola, which turned out to be right.  It's probably the Poulencian playfulness and part-writing that grabbed me, as well as the superb playing by the quartet.  Following it (at 34:47  in the same feed) Tschaikowsky's dramatic overture-fantasia on Hamlet, Opus 67, is also extraordinarily well-played and recorded from a concert in Hamburg, by the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach.  Excellent, dramatic stuff.

Lost and found Lester Young at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, transcribed by Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson's Do the Math (DTM) is the one mainly-music blog that I read every word of.  His work as composer and pianist with The Bad Plus, with Billy Hart in the Billy Hart Quartet, and elsewhere, should not be missed. At DTM, he's given us a  transcription (in concert key) of a fabulous Lester Young solo on Tea for Two, from the Savory Collection, a set of over 1000 recordings, privately made by Bill Savory on 78 rpm discs, of radio performances by great jazz musicians during the years 1935-1940.  The collection was acquired in 2010 by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. The museum is looking into possibilities for publicly releasing the recordings...for now, note that you can listen to them if you visit the museum.

I've transposed to B flat (and slightly edited, based on the sound file linked below) Iverson's transcription, for the benefit of those tenor players who, like myself, don't yet routinely read stuff like this in concert key; you can get the transposed version here, and it's also displayed at the end of this post.

Iverson calls the solo "utterly brilliant"; and I concur.  For those not heavily into jazz, I'll just say that to me the aesthetic and cultural significance of this is comparable to finding the manuscript of a previously unknown Mozart piano concerto...of the caliber of K488 in A, K491 in Cm, or K503 in C.  

You can hear the second chorus of the two-chorus solo, and other excerpts from the collection, at the New York Times website.  The performance is from November 1938, and the group featured "members of the Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw bands", along with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. 

About the performance the Times writers say "Top honors go to Young’s long, free-flowing solo, which is capped by a second chorus that Mr. Schoenberg calls “a wild, spontaneous moment of abandon.” "  (Mr. Schoenberg is Lauren Schoenberg, director of the Museum.)  To me, at least, it seems that the "wild, spontaneous moment of abandon" gives a primary emotional impression of relaxed, unselfconscious joy, a feeling perhaps somewhat rare in later jazz, though characteristic, if perhaps to a less intense degree, of much of Young's greatest work, especially of this period (the late 30s).  Intense striving or yearning, intense sensuality especially of a kind remniscent of eroticism, while they are valuable aspects of many great jazz performances, are mostly absent here;  this is not wild abandon in the sense of holy rollin', freejazz freakout or R&B barwalking, but rather in the sense of a spontaneous breaking out into a dance of joy.  This in part reflects Lester's style of the time, which emphasized grace and poise, relaxation and a degree of restraint even in episodes of blues honking.  (It's not an accident that I chose Mozart in the classical comparison above.)  But I think it also reflects the emotional tenor of Tea for Two itself, which despite being a popular hit at the height of the so-called Jazz Age seems almost nineteenth century in its description of a parlor romance over tea and its joyfully anticipated consummation in marriage and children. Louis Armstrong might be the closest parallel for this kind of uncomplicated joy in early jazz, although Armstrong's joy was often tinged with a bit more explicit triumphalism, his blues with just a tad more raunchiness. But there are definite reminders of Armstrong, or perhaps other trumpet influences (Lester, like Armstrong, loved the playing of Bix Beiderbecke), especially in the ripping measure 41-42 reference to the main Tea for Two theme, the measure 35-36 eighth notes jumping up and down a fourth, before peeling off into a classic Lesterian extended line dropping via turns into descending arpeggios that bounce right back up again, and in the measure 49-51 quarter notes, which come off as an inspiration of the moment (this must be part of what Schoenberg meant by "wild abandon"), and which are a striking contrast to the running-eighth note lines abundant in Young's playing.

Speaking of dancing, the rhythm section, in which guitar rather than piano is the primary audible chorded instrument, lays down a rather implacable but solidly swinging chunk-chunk-chunk-chunk of a 4/4 beat, and Lester dances fleetly in and around it, sometimes, especially when referencing the melody of Tea for Two or emphasizing the somewhat heavy-handed half-measure harmonic rhythm of the main strain, almost implying a feeling of 2/4 but always remaining lightfooted. Besides working on playing this solo, I've been analyzing its harmonic implications a bit, but won't discuss that until I've investigated the harmony being played behind Lester beyond merely comparing it with some charts found around the web.

Here's my B flat transposition of Iverson's transcription, done with Iverson's permission but not with his supervision or imprimatur.  I have also edited the second chorus a bit based on what I hear in the sound file from Savory linked at the New York Times site above. Iverson noted that his transcription contains "a couple of tiny wrong notes"; I found almost none in going over the second chorus. The main differences I've noted with Iverson's version are the shake in measure 38, and the fact that I've written out the gliss or rip in measure 41...although the exact notes I've written there should be taken with a grain of salt. (I thought that the parallel with the similar upward jump on the first beat of measure 42, but with a slightly different rhythmic feel compared to the triplet of measure 42 was worth making explicit.) The few places I've put in slurs are more to indicate that those passages are executed almost like a rip or glissando, not that nothing else is slurred.