This set of music reviews marks
the start of a monthly music review column for Secrets. While the majority of
my reviews will be classical, show and jazz, as well as an eclectic assortment
of DVD-Video, will receive coverage.
Michael Tilson Thomas continues to enhance his reputation as a Mahler interpreter of the first order. With his recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 nominated for two Grammys, this second release in San Francisco’s Mahler series, recorded live in Davies Symphony Hall September 19-23, 2001, finds conductor and players in expectedly superb form.
In documenting his San Francisco Mahler achievements, MTT finds himself pitted against the recorded legacy of past Mahler champions. Though his friend and mentor Leonard Bernstein never advised him in Mahler interpretation, instead encouraging him to “figure it out” on his own, MTT’s performance of this immensely colorful symphony more than holds its own with Bernstein’s live 1987 DG version with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Sonically, San Francisco has the seeming edge over the competition with its dual-layer, SACD (Super Audio Disc) technology. Even on a conventional CD player, the disc yields a dynamic range and clarity far greater than the competition’s. Played on a system equipped for 5.1 SACD surround playback (which I don’t have yet), the dynamic range should be even greater, with surround sound’s extra sense of depth capable of transporting you one step further into Mahler’s magical universe. Curiously, at least in conventional CD playback, San Francisco’s timpani and bass have less impact than Concertgebouw’s; this is certainly not the case in live performance, where San Francisco’s percussion and string sections, like the rest of the orchestra, are stellar.
In an early “program” which he later disavowed, Mahler equated the First’s opening movement with spring. “The introduction to the first movement sounds of nature, not music!” he wrote to conductor Franz Schalk. Certainly spring blossoms in the delightful chirps and cuckoos from the woodwinds, here seeming to originate from different points in the wide, highly atmospheric soundstage, and in melodies that flow like water in a limpid stream. MTT’s sense of nature is magical, the melodic progressions and orchestral peaks wonderfully characterized. Even if some of the emotional transitions could be more sharply delineated and milked for all they’re worth, as Bernstein does so well, and the movement’s ending could be performed even wilder, this is a fine performance.
Tilson Thomas’ second movement scherzo, a ländler (waltz-like dance), is far more successful than Bernstein’s, which moves so slowly as to suggest that Mahler’s couple has leaden feet. Perhaps Bernstein’s interpretation is justified, given that Mahler’s third movement begins by turning “Frères Jacques” into one of his trademark funeral marches, but I prefer to stick with Tilson Thomas and take the symphony one movement at a time.
MTT impressively underscores the funereal aspects of the third movement. Both interpreters, Jewish by birth, excel in conveying Mahler’s unexpected transition to a spiritied melody with Jewish/Klezmer roots, and then to the final sad song from the Wayfarer cycle. Gramophone Magazine may endorse Kubelik’s sonically compressed 1968 performance over all others, but he fails to communicate the lilt and spark of Jewish folk melody that is in the other conductors’ blood.
MTT’s concluding movement is tremendous; the sense of presence is frightening when the orchestra lets loose. Given that Mahler likened his opening to a bolt of lightning, both conductors whip their orchestras into a frenzy. Bernstein may prove more memorable in the way he winds down from this first of many Mahlerian storms, swells at the conclusion of the subsequent heartfelt interlude, and hurls his forces through the climactic ending, but both conductors create moving musical coherence out of Mahler’s characteristic ninety degree shifts from fury to vulnerability and pain to redemption.
The internationally praised, San Francisco-based, male vocal ensemble Chanticleer has received two Grammy nominations for Lamentations and Praises, their recording of music Sir John Taverner composed especially for them. Flying high from a year that has also included a February Gramophone cover story, a rave article in France’s Le Monde, and a 12-station PBS broadcast of their annual New York Christmas concert, the group is currently in the midst of an intense performance schedule that takes them across the United States and Europe.
Chanticleer has recently released its 25th CD, Our American Journey. An 18-selection survey of four centuries of music from the Americas, the disc (a current Gramophone Editor’s Choice) is an ideal vehicle for displaying the vocal range and emotional depth of this superb all-male ensemble. More to the point, a lot of it is drop-dead gorgeous.
Although Chanticleer’s founder, Louis Botto, died in 1997, and only four of the singers who sang with the ensemble in 1991 remain, their sound is for the most part as satisfying as ever. While the group was initially composed of equal numbers of countertenors, tenors, baritones, and basses, a soprano category has since been added, and the baritone and bass categories have been subsumed into one. The resultant vocal blend now puts greater emphasis on higher, soaring voices, with low voices providing a softer foundation than before.
On the plus side, this results in a frequently angelic sound, but it occasionally produces singing that lacks punch. While such weakness never surfaces on this disc, what does mar a few tracks, notably William Billings’ “David’s Lament” and A. M. Cagle’s “Soar Away” (both sung with endearingly phony hick accents), is the tendency for one of the male sopranos to emit his highest notes with a squeaky stridency that suggests his pants are much too tight. In fact, in contemporary Native American composer Brent Michael David’s “The Un-Covered Wagon,” his high shrieks on Native American chant suggest that this singer would have either been revered as a Two-Spirit in his tribe or thrown off a cliff. Thankfully, in softer singing, and notes lying lower in the range, the sound is ideal.
Among the highpoints of the disc are Don Juan de Lienas’s 17th century “Credidi,” a setting of Psalm 115, and contemporary composer Steven Stucky’s gorgeous “Whispers.” Long-time Music Director Joseph Jennings’ arrangements of the concluding four tracks, Ann Ronell’s bluegrass-inspired “Willow Weep for Me,” the Lawson/Waller/Yates “Calling My Children Home,” the traditional “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” and the African-American “I’m a Pilgrim,”(with Jennings providing an authentic-sounding, albeit not high-flying voice), are equal standouts.
Gene Puerling’s slow, dreamy arrangement of Stephen Foster’s “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” (featuring a beautiful solo by tenor Michael Lichtenauer), and his heaven-sent setting of George Gershwin’s “Love Walked In” yield memorable performances. With music, singing, and sonics as beautiful as this, this is a disc you will want to share over and over with friends and loved ones.
Bulgarians from Berkeley? Having recently returned from an extended Eastern European sojourn where they lived in rustic villages, coached with members of Bulgaria’s famed women’s chorus, Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares, and performed with them in concert, the eight American women of the Bay Area-based Kitka vocal ensemble are as close as you’ll get to authentic Eastern European vocal styles this side of the Atlantic.
Bulgarian music is unique. As displayed on the recordings of Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares, who created a sensation when their Nonesuch discs became best sellers in the late ‘80s, as well as on Kitka’s three CDs, vocal production is forward, strong and nasal, with minimal vibrato. The melodies’ unusual harmonies, rooted in village cultures ancient and earthy, include striking juxtapositions and rhythmic sophistication. On spirited selections, occasional high-flying yips and yelps spring organically from a seemingly uncontainable exuberance; these upbeat numbers stand in marked contrast with slower, lyrical pieces whose beauty transcends the passing of centuries.
Though their membership has changed over the years, Kitka continues to display flawless intonation, rhythmic precision, and consistent beauty of tone. Lower voices have a special warmth and roundness that balances the soprano line. Their forte singing may have less of a cutting edge than the larger Le Mystére des Voix Bulgares, but their soft singing has an enviable, caressing beauty that lingers long after a selection has ended.
Flattered by the excellent acoustic of George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound, and a recording that is light years ahead of the older Nonesuch discs, Kitka offers 19 traditional selections from Bulgaria, Albania, Russia, the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Georgia, and Bosnia. The disc begins with a spirited arrangement of the Bulgarian “Sübrali Sa Se Subrali,” in which young women dozing after spinning awake to discover items of clothing missing from their bodies. Songs of family, love, wedding, harvest and sorrow follow; some feature the entire ensemble, while others are solos, duets, or trios. Twelve selections are sung a cappella, with others variously feature Shira Kammen on rebec and vielle; Peter Maund on percussion, zarb, tambourine, and dumbek: and women’s music pioneer Linda Tillery on cajón and djembe, Cheryl Ann Fulton’s lever harp adds lovely warmth to “Cântec de Leagane,” a heart-touching selection from Romania.
For this listener, Kitka’s soft grained, lyrical singing holds the deepest appeal. The Georgian “Shen Khar Venakhi” is gorgeous, its 12th century lyrics and harmonies evoking a fragrant vineyard in first bloom. The innocent purity of the Russian “Kak Po Morju,” at odds with its menacing lyric, and the emptiness of the Bulgarian war lament “Dor Tri Mi Pushki Puknaa” are other standouts. With the spirited yelps and superb percussion of the concluding “Po Polju,” this is a disc to treasure.
Aware of his impending demise from syphilis (possibly contracted from a male prostitute), Franz Schubert spent 1828, the last of his 31 years, composing some his most profound masterpieces. In September, he completed his glorious String Quintet, D. 956 and final three piano sonatas (D. 958, 959, and 960). Less than two months later, he was dead.
Leif Ove Andsnes, winner of the 2002 Gramophone Instrumental Award for his disc of excerpts from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, was 31 when he recorded Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata. It is a youthful performance, stronger on drama and energetic momentum than on the sense of melancholy and resignation that pervades portions of the work.
Andsnes excels in the thunderous opening chords of the A major, where their contrast with the lighter writing that follows immediately announces the depth of emotion and seemingly unstoppable flow of melody that distinguishes Schubert’s penultimate sonata. Most striking is the second movement Andantino, where, midway into the proceedings, Schubert literally breaks the flow of melody with startling, crashing chords followed by extended pauses. The feeling is one of death’s sudden, unannounced intrusion. Andsnes marvelously stretches the silences between these thunderous chords, making the effect even more chilling.
When played alongside a l999 live performance by 69-year old Alfred Brendel, part of a Schubert four-sonata set (Philips 289 456 573-2) nominated for the 2001 Gramophone Instrumental award, the relative merits of each interpretation become clear. Brendel’s greater use of light and shade, of momentary hesitations, and of soft playing conveys a greater sense of all-pervasive sadness. The emotional content is enhanced by a recording whose superior capture of the piano’s deep resonance better conveys the monumental nature of Schubert’s vision. Brendel is less overtly theatrical – the pauses in his Andantino move along in more or less metric time – but the introverted nature of his performance touches on the deepest levels.
Especially striking is the difference with which these two artists treat the final movement. Andsnes’ 10.55 turns it into a sunny, lyrical excursion, while Brendel’s 13.30 has a valedictory feel to it, as if Schubert is saying that the emotional cycle of despair, death, peace, and rebirth that we experience in the slow movements of many of his final works is coming to an end. When all is said and done, I would not wish to be without both interpretations.
The four songs that conclude the disc are related to Schubert’s piano sonatas in various ways. The melancholy opening of the the 1821 “Der Unglückliche” recalls the Andante of Schubert’s earlier A major Piano Sonata, D. 664. The main theme of D. 959’s Andantino recalls the 1823 song “Pilgerweise,” D. 789. “Auf dem Strom,” D. 943 for voice, piano and horn, and “Die Sterne,” D. 939 both date from 1828, and reflect the influence of Beethoven heard in the piano sonata.
Bostridge immediately ingratiates with his beautifully fresh, warm tone. The over-inflection that sometimes mars his performances is nowhere to be found. His singing is so lovely that it seems churlish to note that some of the songs could benefit from slower tempos and a greater variation of tone. For example, tenor Michael Schade, partnered by Graham Johnson in disc 37 of the Hyperion Complete Songs of Schubert, offers a more profound interpretation of “Auf dem Strom;” baritone Robert Holl better captures the pained heart of the pilgrim who sings “Pilgerweise;” and Johnson’s more pointed playing for soprano Juliette Banse in “Die Sterne” better conveys the joy of the song. Regardless, there is a sheer loveliness to Bostridge’s singing that makes it irresistible.
When he introduced soprano Audra McDonald, the star attraction of the San Francisco Symphony’s 2001 opening night gala, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas said something to the effect that his life was transformed after hearing her sing. Coming from a man whose discography includes a Gershwin compilation he conducted with the great, sassy Sarah Vaughan, this is no mean complement.
Complements, of course, are legion for McDonald. Since bursting onto the Broadway scene in Nicholas Hytner's 1994 production of Carousel, the Julliard-trained singer and actress has made music history as the first person to win three Tony Awards before reaching the age of 30. Most recently, she won the 1998 Tony for her role in "Ragtime," starred in the Broadway debut of Terrence McNally’s "Master Class" about Maria Callas, and received an Emmy-nomination for her acting performance opposite Emma Thompson in HBO's Wit.
McDonald’s new 12-selection disc includes standards by Harold Arlen, Jimmy McHugh, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Vincent Youmans; more recent selections by Jay Leonhart, Michael John LaChiusa; and the traditional Brazilian song “Bambalelè.” As you will immediately sense, the woman is an extraordinarily intelligent, immensely expressive artist who knows how to invest every note and word with meaning.
She also possesses impeccable taste; nothing is overdone, rather every nuance seems preordained by the song at hand. The “rightness” of her singing, of course, is allied to her complete understanding of the context from which the music originates, dictating the style that is appropriate to its success. Not only is McDonald’s voice beautiful, but her range and stylistic versatility are also extensive enough to convincingly encompass everything from Gershwin to Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. Most important, her spirit is so communicative and alive that she positively makes you happy to hear her sing.
Singling out performances for praise almost misses the point; virtually every phrase Audra McDonald sings on Happy Songs is a gem. A case in point is Duke Ellington’s wordless vocalise, “On a Turquoise Cloud.” A far cry from the more somber classical Vocalise by Rachmaninoff, “On a Turquoise Cloud” becomes in McDonald’s throat a delightfully dreamy, effortless flow of smooth, sensual sound. Her quasi-operatic production on this selection stands in sharp contrast to her idiomatic rendition of Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg’s “Aint it de Truth?” (Life is short, short brother! Ain’t it de truth?… You gotta grab that rainbow While you still got your youth/Oh! ain’t it de solid truth?). And so it goes.
Audra McDonald is a treasure. Unless you’re threatened by joy and happiness, you will want to hear this disc.
This delightful recording displays the reasons for Swiss-French flautist Emmanuel Pahud’s rapid ascendance to the top rank of artists: the man possesses radiant, effortless tone and flawless technique, employed with impeccable taste.
The handsome Pahud, who turns 33 on January 27, won top prizes in numerous competitions before becoming the principal flautist of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Claudio Abbado in 1993. Before that, he was principal flautist with the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra under Nello Santi from 1989-92, and briefly with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra under Sergiu Celibidache. He is the only flautist in the world currently under contract with a major label.
In choosing five flute concertos by baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), Pahud has discovered ideal vehicles to display his fluid playing. Written over a period of more than twenty years, many movements of these concertos bubble over with melodic invention. There’s a joie de vivre to Telemann’ writing for flute, especially in his rapid, virtuosic passages designed to show off a soloist’s technical facility and capacity for ornamentation.
Among the concertos on the disc are the E major TWV 53:E1, in which the flute partners with the soft-toed oboe d’amore and viola d’amore; the A major TWV 53:A2 (admired by Handel, Quantz and Pisendel), in which the flute is joined by violin and cello; and the Concerto for Two Flutes, in which flautists Pahud and Jacques Zoon echo each other. Everywhere there is a melodic grace that distinguishes Telemann’s writing from that of numerous baroque wannabes.
Of particular interest is the joyful 1721 Concerto for Flute, Strings and Continuo in G, TWV 51:G2. Until reconstructed in 2000 by Arn Aske and Urike Feld, this Concerto was preserved in only one badly damaged, seemingly unplayable manuscript copy of the parts. Among other problems, there were many pin-sized holes where the acid in the ink had attacked the paper, the writing on left-hand pages bled into the right-hand ones, and the continuo part that supplies the concerto’s harmonic foundation in places lacked whole bars and even parts of pages.
Pahud receives excellent support from the Berliner Barock Solisten (Berlin Baroque Soloists). Founded in 1995 by members of the Berlin Philharmonic and well-known figures in Berlin’s early music community, its members perform with stylistic authenticity on mostly old but modernized instruments. EMI’s sound is quite clear, with the extra reverberation surrounding Pahud’s substantial-sounding modern clarinet adding a welcome ethereal touch.
The much anticipated pairing of our greatest young Britten tenor, Ian Bostridge, and most versatile countertenor, David Daniels, yields impressive results. This 75-minute disc, pairing Britten’s five Christian inspired Canticles with seven of his most deeply felt folksong settings, deserves a place in every music lover’s collection
Britten, who wrote much of his vocal music for his life-partner, tenor Peter Pears, was a devout Christian and pacifist who frequently used his composing skills to cope with conflicting ideologies and their consequent toll on humanity. The first three of his extended Canticles were composed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, shortly after the composition of the seven folksong settings heard here and the pacifist couple’s self-imposed exile to America during WWII. The last two Canticles date from Britten’s final period of composition in the early 1970s.
Although Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine, is a tenor setting of a 17th century elaboration on a line from the Biblical Book of Canticles, to lavender ears, it comes across as an ardent declaration of male love. Immediately appealing in its lyrical flow, this ecstatic mini-cantata finds a welcome home in the warmth and sweetness of Bostridge’s voice.
Equally appealing is Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac. Composed in 1952 for the irreplaceable duo of tenor Pears and alto Kathleen Ferrier, it finds fresh realization in the inspired partnership of Bostridge and Daniels. The men’s voices blend wonderfully, with countertenor Daniels sounding ideally innocent and pure as Abraham’s sacrificial son.
Thanks to a recent release in the BBC Britten The Performer series (BBCB 8014-2), we can hear a 1956 recording of Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain, in which Britten and horn virtuoso Dennis Brain accompany Pears a year after the work was composed. This setting of poet Edith Sitwell’s searing indictment of war faithfully captures Pears’ unique ability to voice the essence of suffering, rotting flesh, and spiritual decadence in a manner equally hypnotic and repellant. Drake’s pianism may not be a searing as Britten’s, and Timothy Brown’s horn may be recorded a little too distant, but Bostridge uses his beautiful, evenly produced voice and probing intelligence to create a deeply felt, emotionally convincing portrayal of Christ’s suffering.
The last two Canticles are settings of poems by T.S. Eliot. Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi pairs Bostridge and Daniels with the gorgeously voiced baritone Christopher Maltman; Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcisssus, features harpist Aline Brewer accompanying Bostridge in a eerily effective realization of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows. Not for bedtime listening.
Britten, Pears and soprano Sophie Wyss recorded several of Britten’s early folksong settings in the mono era (EMI Classics 7 64727 2). Here, seven songs are variously distributed among Maltman, Daniels and Bostridge. To my mind, no one sings “O Waly, Waly” better than Kathleen Ferrier; her second version, recorded around the time she learned of the leukemia that was to take her life, offers an incomparable blend of spiritual conviction, emotional despair, and vocal beauty. (If you do not know this woman’s voice, search out reissues by Decca and other labels of her folksong recordings and songs by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms). Soprano Arleen Auger’s version of “Down by the Salley Gardens” (Delos) is similarly unforgettable with its blend of pristine beauty, womanly maturity, and open heart.
These new recordings are not ideal. While Maltman sounds luscious in “The Plough Boy,” he’s hardly as deep as Auger in “The Salley Gardens” and Pears in “The foggy, foggy dew.” Daniels overdoes some of the pathos in “O Waly, Waly,” and Bostridge refuses to let “Greensleeves” sing for itself. Regardless, if you have never experienced the depth that Britten’s genius leant to simple folk melodies, these performances, accompanied by a piano sounding at its resonant best, will offer revelations.
Though the notion of large boned, tutu-clad transvestites en pointe making light of the conventions of classical ballet seems less novel than when the Trocks first debuted in 1974, this video’s 100+ minutes of classic and original travesty parody ballets shows a troupe as fresh as when they first began performing over 25 years ago. Certainly the lightness with which they execute their routines remains intact.
Exaggerated facial expressions, ridiculous movements, missed cues, occasional upstaging, and hilarious “that can’t be in the script” excursions go hand to toe with interesting choreography and surprisingly graceful movement. While the bravura leaps and breathtaking turns that make ballet so engrossing are in short supply --there are no Pavlovas, Tallchiefs, or Makarovas in the troupe, let alone their male Nijinsky, Nureyev, or Baryshnikov counterparts -- there is sufficient balance between skillful dancing and extraneous absurdity to keep us pleasantly entertained and sometimes tickled pink.
Since their 1975/1976 season, which saw The Trocks’ first extended tours of the United States and Canada, the troupe has been seen internationally on a number of prestigious television shows including a Shirley MacLaine special. The dancers have also performed with such gifted guests as Maya Plissetskaya, Leanne Benjamin, percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and Miss Piggy; and journeyed beyond North America to such countries as Australia, England, Germany, Holland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa, Wales, and Japan. What was once an in-joke has now become an institution.
While the DVD experience can never provide the collective electricity and excitement generated by live performance, it does afford us a premium seat, rendering into sharp focus the contorted facial expressions, raised eyebrows, and lowered pinkies upon which much of the Trock joyrelies. (It’s most amusing to discover that some of the men playing men look more like women than the men dressed as women). DVD-Video also gives us the option to enjoy the program in either stereo or 5.0 surround sound.
The short closing “documentary” offers little more than a collection of backstage shots, but it does show a side of the Trocks not available to the audience. The Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra comes across quite well, its instruments well captured in an air-filled soundstage. Frankly, even if the musicians sawed away, it wouldn’t matter. The dancing is what it’s all about. This is a program in which art springs from artifice, and delight from the ludicrous. Highly recommended
- Jason Serinus -