Sunday, October 4, 2015

Love, Loss, and the Sea: Soile Isokoski sings French art song

Soile Isokoski's album of lush French art songs resists easy classification. It doesn't have a title; its design doesn't seem to strive for a particular atmosphere. It is in many ways a slowly unfolding disc, subtle and richly layered. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of John Storgårds, provides a delicately nuanced reading of some of the nineteenth century's more ecstatic outpourings. While far from averse to a bit of musical decadence, I appreciated the unusually intellectual approach of Storgårds and Isokoski. Although I anticipated that Les Nuits d'Été would form the centerpiece of the disc, I found the very philosophical ecstasies of Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer to be its unexpected standout.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Liedsommer in autumn: Michaela Schuster's Morgen!

Michaela Schuster, photographed by Nikola Stege
I could just tell you that this CD is endorsed by Brigitte Fassbaender and have done, Gentle Readers. But I can't pass up an excuse to enthuse about lieder, and I also wholeheartedly recommend Michaela Schuster's creative, intimate, and sensual recital disc, Morgen! The ambitious selection of lieder--generous samplings of Brahms, R. Schumann, Reger, and Strauss--along with Schuster's reputation as a Wagnerian, led me to expect sweeping magnificence. What Schuster presents, partnered by Markus Schlemmer on the piano, is something much more intimate, and invariably interesting. The disc was recorded during the Eppaner Liedsommer of 2012, and the production process does not appear to have been aggressively interventionist. (Either coughing has been edited out, or the audience was silent with a quasi-miraculous silence.) Voice and piano are sweetly resonant, with spontaneity in interpretation taking precedence over polish. I wish I knew enough about the technology of recording to explain this better; I only know that suddenly hearing Brahms as though performed in a living room was so unexpectedly soothing that I practically melted into the sofa.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

(Un)Orthodox Transcendence: Rachmaninov's Chrysostom Liturgy

Nave of the Auenkirche, Berlin-Wilmersdorf
As a self-described liturgy nerd, I jumped at the chance to review a new recording of Rachmaninov's setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The Rundfunkchor Berlin has a truly glorious sound, but the first thing that strikes the ear on this disc are the acoustics. These are also glorious. Berlin's Auenkirche gives great resonance to single voices and the ensemble, and the excitingly space-filling sound comes through well and cleanly on the recording. The layers of sound are gorgeous, serving Rachmaninov's harmonization and sometimes unconventional vocal writing well.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jonas Kaufmann's Puccini album: making the familiar unexpected

Does the world really need another Puccini album? Probably not. But opera-lovers as a group are very ready to cry, with Lear, "O reason not the need!" And Jonas Kaufmann, together with Antonio Pappano, has recorded a disc that is more than just another Puccini album. This is, in no small part, due to the luxury of having the very fine orchestra and chorus of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia on board with the project. Under Pappano's baton, the orchestral contributions to this album do much to set it apart. This is no mere window-dressing or accompaniment, no mere setting for the voice; this is drama and commentary at once, blood and bones and breath. Kaufmann's work is also very fine, and, in places, nothing less than hair-raising. Although the album includes several of the most famous staples of the dramatic tenor's repertoire, it is in the lesser-known pieces, and in some unexpected moments, that Kaufmann's artistry is most interesting, and most effective.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Liederabend Special: Thomas Quasthoff

After pondering Lieder puns for far too long, Gentle Readers, I present to you the first post in a planned series exploring my library of art song discs, and the reasons they've made it into my modest collection. These reasons vary from careful selection, to discount-bin serendipity, to my inability to resist a mezzo-soprano singing Mahler. In the case of Thomas Quasthoff's A Romantic Songbook, it's a case of me looking at DG's First Choice series and declaring internally, "Why yes, this is indeed the thoughtfully curated and expertly performed German Lieder disc I need in my life!" Thanks to Quasthoff's mastery, and the subtle, surprising, knowing accompaniment of Justus Zeyen at the piano, this CD is often what I want for an unhurried, cliché-free tour of the German art song repertoire of the long nineteenth century.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Chi al par di me contenta? OperaRox Figaro

Happy Families? Figaro's matrimonial entanglements
(L-R: Miller, Maliakel, Smith, de Bettancourt)
The start of the academic year precipitated another Blogging Backlog, but that's now being cleared with Alex's MusicologistRoommate report on OperaRox's can-do, creative production of Le Nozze di Figaro, an operatic offering I'm sorry to have missed.

* * *

I recently had the pleasure of attending OperaRox Presents’ first full-length production, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), at the National Opera Center. OperaRox, OperaRox Presents’ parent organization, is an online community of opera enthusiasts and professionals, who not only seek to nurture their own love of opera, but also to share it with the world. Armed with only a piano and few props in the intimate Scorca Hall, they created a new Nozze—a daunting feat considering the opera’s long history and audiences’ familiarity with the production. The director’s note in the program cites eccentric attempts to liven up the opera with novelty settings and concepts, but OperaRox had a different approach:
This space, and frankly, our budget as a fledgling DIY company, dictated another approach. There are no wigs, corsets, topiaries, or pyrotechnics in our Nozze; just a small stage with a piano, a few chairs, and a brave young cast you don’t have to squint at through binoculars. (Amber Treadway, “A Note from the Director”)
This necessary minimalism of the production serves as its heart and the young and talented cast is its voice. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Listening Library: Turandot

There's nothing like blasting an opera on the stereo to help oneself settle into a new place; this is a credo by which I proudly live. And I have found it to be particularly salutary in the eerie quiet of a carpeted house. (I'm still suffering from NYC-withdrawal.) Turandot may seem an odd choice to inaugurate my listening sessions here. It is, by almost any standard, one of the most unloveable of operas. Being unfinished, it's in many ways an oddly unfulfilled work. Moreover, it is, even by the criteria of opera's mostly-nineteenth-century standard repertory, astonishingly sexist and racist/Orientalist. It's a mess. However. It is--to me--musically fascinating. (Lots of Aida productions have managed to leave the banks of the Nile behind; I'm waiting for Turandot to make a more decisive break from China.) The score, evocative and experimental, not only shows Puccini's technical mastery, but shows him pushing the expressive potential of that mastery in new ways. I am a well-documented sucker for all the emotional manipulation of Puccini's mid-career standards, and believe them to be unfairly mired in a largely kitschy production history (cf. William Berger). But Turandot, with its disturbed characters, disturbing libretto, and unquiet musical undercurrents, manages to an unusual degree to transcend its own surface narrative, at least for me as a listener. It has also benefitted from what has to be one of the great vocal lineups of opera recording history.


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