Friday, February 5, 2016

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Verdi's Macbeth

As an itinerant scholar, I've recently written a small piece about Verdi's Macbeth. The commissioning body doesn't know what it's unleashed. Among other things, it gave me the idea of starting a series of semi-scholarly summaries here, featuring historical background, colorful anecdotes, and a highly subjective selection of recommended reading and listening. As has been intermittently obvious on this blog, going to the research library as preparation for attending an opera performance is my idea of a good time. It would seem that I have a kindred spirit in Verdi himself; he paid a great deal of attention to the historical setting of Shakespeare's Macbeth, writing to his publisher and set-designer about political details of eleventh-century England and Scotland.

Macbeth was Verdi's own favorite opera at the time of writing. In 1864, however, when undertaking substantial revisions, he wrote of parts of it as "weak, or even worse, lacking in character." The mid-twentieth century saw a brief revival of the 1847 version, and in recent years, both versions have found place on the operatic stage. The work's very unconventionalities - to judge by essays and interviews - helped it to a mini-boom in the early years of the twenty-first century. (I've written about performances I've seen at the Met here and here.) Macbeth was Verdi's first foray into adapting Shakespeare, and he was unsurprisingly perfectionistic in working with Piave on the libretto, intent on having language echo feeling and fit with musical form.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Far More Than Mediocre: Salieri's Les Danaides

Look at that cover design!
In some corner of my mind, Salieri will always be F. Murray Abraham. I can't help it. To be honest, this was one of the reasons that I jumped at the chance to review a gorgeously-produced recording of his sweeping 1784 opera, Les Danaïdes. Another reason was that it was simply and irresistibly beautiful (see left.) It has the kind of apparatus I can't resist, with critical essays in French and English, lucidly written and in a nice typeface. (I do realize that I'm revealing novel facets and depths of my nerdery, here...) With Les Talens Lyriques led by Christophe Rousset, the musical quality promised to be similarly luxurious, and I was not disappointed. There is an energy and brio to the entire performance that is irresistible. There's also orchestral creativity and moral nuance that I found fascinating. I'm not alone in this. Berlioz, seeing a performance in the 1820s, enthused about the éclat of the drama, the harmonic cooperation of chorus and orchestra, and the talent of the singers. Even without the benefit of dramatic tableaux, it's easy to echo his praise.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Seasonal Special: Advent

Once again I find myself in the sweet spot of a target audience, this time as choral music aficionado and Liturgy Nerd.  The commercial season of Christmas has been going on long enough to bring a Scrooge-like gleam to the eye. In liturgical terms, however, we're still in the midst of Advent: a season, ideally, of quiet anticipation. It's one of my favorite times of the liturgical year, so it was with great delight that I discovered a new CD dedicated to music written for it. The Junger Kammerchor Rhein-Neckar, under the direction of Mathias Rickert, has recorded a really rich album, featuring not only music from such luminaries as Byrd, Victoria, and Pärt, but also many creative arrangements and original pieces by contemporary composers. Predictably, I love it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Late Romanticism in Lieder: Mahler Contemporaries

Recording venue: St. Jacob the Greater, Jihlava
A disc entitled Mahler Contemporaries is as a siren call to me. I am always fascinated by music that doesn't fit easily into categories of the romantic or the modern, experimenting and exploring possibilities. I wondered, I confess, how a CD devoted to such music would acquire its coherence. Mahler Contemporaries, recorded live at a Mahler festival in 2014, doesn't impose much external structure on its offerings, instead allowing the wide range of musical styles to speak for themselves. I found the resulting listening experience stimulating and enjoyable, although I would have appreciated  more thorough liner notes, which were limited to potted biographies of the composers. I also suspect that the recording technology may have flattened the acoustics of the church where the works were performed. Including Strauss and Schoenberg, and ranging far beyond them, the disc offers rarities that should be welcomed by all those who (like me) are always complaining that there isn't enough weird central European romanticism being programmed by the concert and recital venues of the world.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Medieval/modern Sunday special: Responsio

The Coronation of the Virgin, Rheims Cathedral
As a medievalist and liturgy nerd with an active interest in new music, I feel that I am standing somewhere quite near the metaphorical bullseye of the target audience for a contemporary Mass setting inspired by Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame. Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni's Responsio embroiders upon, responds to, and joyfully interacts with Machaut's hauntingly lovely setting. The resulting music is sometimes meditative, sometimes exuberant, and always interesting.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Special: Divine Redeemer

Church of the Gesù, Milwaukee
Any album covering Bach to the twentieth century can seem riskily ambitious. But Christine Brewer and Paul Jacobs offer an engaging recital of sacred music for voice and organ, demonstrating the diversity of this repertoire. The vast spaces of Milwaukee's Church of the Gesù create resonances that were occasionally odd, to my ear, but this may be in part because because I expect to hear these pieces performed in different spaces from each other. Also, the church appears to be much bigger not only than that of the average parish, but than that of the average parish with a pipe organ. Seeing the album cover blazoned with the names of composers from four centuries and multiple traditions, I wondered about the cohesion of the disc. In the event, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of unfamiliar works alongside pieces frequently performed, if more seldom with this high level of musicianship.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Jedermann: Sibelius meditates on mortality

Gentle Readers, I suggest that we banish the phrase "hidden masterpiece." Agreed? Good. Leaving that meaningless cliché aside, I can go on to happily discuss why Sibelius' 1916 music for Hofmannsthal's Jedermann (1911) is really worth a listen. Atmospheric and harmonically rich, it's a treat in its own right, doing interesting things with musical form. Rarely performed or recorded, it has a new and engaging recording from the Finnish forces of the Turku Philharmonic under Leif Segerstram, and the Cathedralis Aboensis Choir. Sibelius composed the work to adhere exactly to stage directions, a prescription that the CD leaflet speculatively blames for its rare performance. I can't hear that, myself. The piece is not symmetrically composed, but it's richly allusive, lively and meditative by turns. Sibelius may have been annoyed that the devil never came in on cue, but there's plenty to enjoy in the piece without its accompanying morality play. The work is rounded out, on the disc, by thematically similar works of the composer from around the same period.


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