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Classical, Jazz, and Tango - No. 48 - July, 2004

Jason Victor Serinus


 

For a few words about my reviewing process and preferences, please see the introduction to Classical Reviews # 36.

 
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CANDIDO & GRACIELA: INOLVIDABLE • CHESKY JD249

 

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Three cheers for David Chesky. Somehow he has managed to lure two of Cuba’s great music legends out of retirement to make a state-of-the-art recording. Listening to this music is like taking a trip back in time, to the era of Ricky Ricardo, Miami nightclubs, and the popular music of an era in which Cuba was not cast as the enemy of the American people.

For well over 40 years, Graciela (Perez) was known as the First Lady of Afrio-Cuban Jazz. Originally the lead vocalist for Machito and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, she began the partnership in the early 1940s and continued singing with the orchestra through the ‘70s. After parting ways with her older brother Machito, she joined her brother-in-law Mario Bauza’s band. She continued performing until 1993, when Bauza’s death signaled her time to step back.

Happily, a request from 82-year-old conguero Candido Camero to join her on an album of familiar old tunes lured the Havana-born Graziela out of retirement. Even at 88, and crippled by arthritis, the woman is a wonder.

Graziela, who has known Candido for over 60 years, is quoted on the album notes as saying, “I only agreed to do it because Candido was going to be involved. People are always asking me to sing for them, but I have known him for so many years that recording with him was not a big deal.”

The disc, recorded in state-of-the-art sound in the Manhattan Church that Chesky regularly converts into a recording studio, is marvelous. Graziela sings on seven tracks, variously joined by Candido on triple-congas plus plus a band of expert Latin jazz artists consisting of violin, flute, piano, bass, percussion, back-up singers, and special guest vocalist Xiomara Laugart. Although there is nothing like Graziela’s voice, the pure instrumental selections are equally inolvidable (unforgettable).

The amazing thing is how good Graciela sounds. The voice sounds less weathered than mature, possessing an earthiness singers 1/4 her age would figuratively kill for. I don’t know if the range is lower than in her heyday, but all the notes are there, voiced with equal power. Energizing the sound is a seemingly indomitable spirit that bespeaks the Cubop movement of the late ‘40s.

Most extraordinary is how Graziela is still able to soften her voice on the more romantic numbers, rounding off phrases with consummate skill. This is not another case of a worn out singer croaking away for the sake of posterity. Rather, it’s the real thing, performed with a vitality and presence that create musicianship of the highest order.

This disc is also fabulous for dancing. Imagine yourself on a ballroom floor, a rotating globe of mirrors suspended above you swirling stars of light on and you around as the music draws you deeper into the spirit.

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SAINT-SAËNS: JAVOTTE (COMPLETE BALLET)

PARYSATIS (BALLET: INTRODUCTION AND THREE SCENES)

THE QUEENSLAND ORCHESTRA, ANDREW MOGRELIA

MARCO POLO 8.223612

 

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SAINT-SAËNS: MUSIC FROM HENRY VIII

DELIBES: GISELLE (COMPLETE BALLET)

RASUMOVSKY SINFONIA, ANDREW MOGRELIA

 NAXOS 8.553338.

 

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Andrew Mogrelia, the relatively new Music Director of the San Francisco Ballet, has recently released recordings of two infrequently performed ballet scores by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), one of the great French composers of the last two centuries, Though the ensembles, the Queensland Orchestra and the Razumovsky Sinfonia, reside many light years from San Francisco and France, the quality of the conducting supplies ample evidence of Mogrelia’s expertise in this arena.

If you find ballets populated by rustic villagers, courting couples, and pleas for a daughter’s hand forbiddingly old-fashioned, the complete score to Saint-Saëns’ 1909 Javotte will not get your mojo working. The tradition-bound tale inspired Saint-Saëns to compose thirty-one short sections totaling an hour in length. The musical results may be decidedly square, but they are also superbly crafted. That the composer manages to create a seamless score, as free flowing as the best from Frankl, Hermann, and Williams is much to his credit.

Every note of Javotte has ballet written all over it. You know what the dancers are going to do as soon as you hear the music. If that makes Saint-Saëns’ score sound as predictable as the yawn-inducing plot, it does not detract from its urbane albeit unquestionably tame charm. The Finale to Scene 2 is very Mark Morris; what that choreographer could do with Saint-Saëns’ setting of the parents’ discovery that their daughter is missing would leave an audience in stitches. Though the composer may have dispensed such music with an air of self-satisfied smugness, one can only admire his administrative skills.

Javotte is paired with the Introduction and three scenes from Saint-Saëns’ incidental music to the play Parysatis. This music, far more Egyptian and pseudo-Oriental in tone than Javotte’s, sounds like Scheherazade in less expensive shoes. Perhaps Saint-Saëns was drawn to the play because its author Jane Dieulafoy dressed as a man. At the 1902 premiere in the Arena at Béziers, she appeared onstage in male drag with Saint-Saëns at her side to acknowledge the audience’s considerable applause.

These Marco Polo performances, distributed by Naxos, find Mogrelia and the Australian Queenslands in fine form. Every forte, every accent, every sweetly scented note you could wish for is here. The Moderato from Parysitis is especially noteworthy for its graceful arches of sound. Mogrelia’s every bar beats ballet.

A Naxos two-discer mainly devoted to a fine, competitive recording of Léo Delibes’ classic ballet Sylvia serves up dessert via 20 minutes of Saint-Saëns’ Ballet-Divertissement from Act II of his forgotten opera Henry VIII. S-S wrote the work in 1883, two years after separation from his young wife. Here you will find a grand English processional - my listening companion found it more tutti-frutti than British - other assorted quasi-anglicisms, and a lovely “fete du Houblon” that has classical FM radio’s watered down pale-faced pleasantries written all over it.


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VERA GALUPE-BORSZKH: THE ANNUAL FAREWELL RECITAL • MAESTRO SERGIO ZAWA, PIANO • VAI DVD 4250

 

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The stultified conventions, absurd plots, romantic and dramatic excesses, overblown stagings, and behind-the-scenes personal intrigue of opera, ballet, and classical music have long provided fertile ground for parody. In the last century, humorist Victor Borge and soprano cum baritone Anna Russell built their careers on variously satirizing classical music and the operas of Wagner. More recently, Les Ballets Trockadero and La Gran Scena Opera Company have built international touring careers based on all-male travesty adaptations of their respective classical mediums.

Ira Siff, currently a major critic for Opera News who coaches voice students internationally and directs opera performances, co-founded La Gran Scena Opera Company in New York City in 1981. As you will read in the extensive interview to be published here in August, 2004, Siff had no idea that the highly respected New York Times critic Bernard Holland would show up on opening night. Holland’s subsequent review, which appeared in the Times, instantly garnered the company a loyal following.

Over the years, the company staged regular performances in New York and abroad, garnering international acclaim. The company grew in size from two to twelve or thirteen. I recall seeing them in their glory days in New York City, reveling not only in Siff’s artistry but also in the charm with which America’s most beloved retired diva, Sylvia Bills, introduced the selections.

In 1986, Siff, whose alternate persona was the Croatian singing actress Vera Galupe-Borszkh, began spoofing the tradition of soprano farewell recitals by staging such events on an annual basis. Originally intended for a small audience, these too took off, garnering an increasingly larger following.

Madame Galupe-Borszkh eventually staged excerpts from her recitals for opera galas in Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher and Alice Tully Hall, London’s Bloomsbury Theater, The Covent Garden Festival, and countless other venues and festivals. These spoofs drew such opera notables as Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, Leontyne Price, James Levine, Renata Scotto, Aprile Millo, Sherrill Milnes, Anna Moffo, and Martina Arroyo.

Critical reaction was universally positive. The New York Times called the performances “A loving, riotous spoof!” and Time exclaimed “Stupendous singing! Magnificent excess!”

The genius of Siff’s Diva alter ego is now available to enjoy for anyone with a DVD player . The main part of this 243-minute program consists of a live recital, taped on April 30, 2003 at La Belle Epoque in New York City. Vera had by this time reached the end of her illustrious career. What the voice could no longer accomplish with the same agility and tonal sheen as in days past is more than compensated for by a sophistication of shtick and presentation.

Madame Galupe-Borszkh sings everything from material suited to her voice, nationality, and temperament, such as Poulenc’s truly beautiful “Les Chemins de l’amour,” to such inappropriate repertoire as a Mandarin folksong entitled “The Horse,” Gershwin’s “S’wonderful” (performed with a pseudo Croatian accent and irrepressible urge to scat sing), and the traditional African-American spiritual, “Ride on Jesus” (which left Leontyne Price in stitches). In between we get such classics as Ponchielli’s “Suicidio!” from La Gioconda, Boito’s “L’altra notte in fondo al mare” from Mefistofele, and Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (with the Diva of course taking full advantage of the song’s opportunities to create three different characters and voices within a span of a few minutes).

The so-called bonus material is actually essential for a full appreciation of Vera’s artistry. The final scene from Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux and Ophelia’s Mad Scene from Thomas’ Hamlet were no doubt beyond the Diva’s reach in 2003, but easily accomplished and thereby destroyed earlier on. The shtick is a little less sophisticated, the gestures not as perfectly worked out, but the voice is in better shape. Here the able accompanist is Maestro Francesco Folinari-Soave-Coglioni, who is rumored to have shined shoes in Penn Station in his spare time. The self-same Maestro also accompanies “The Essential Vera,” which includes performances of works by Straus, Poulenc and Cilèa.

No DVD worth its salt would be issued without behind the scenes interviews. Thus we are treated to two tracks of “Ira Siff: The Man Behind the Diva.” Siff is a comic genius, and the interviews discussing both Vera and La Gran Scena Opera Company are not to be missed. Neither is the rest of this treasurable DVD. By all means . . . .

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CHRISTOPHER ROUSE

BALTIMORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, DAVID ZINMAN

FIST EDITION MUSIC FECD-0026

 

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CHRISTOPHER ROUSE: DER GERETTE ALBERICH, RAPTURE, VIOLIN CONCERTO

EVELYN GLENNIE, PERCUSSION

CHO-LIANG LIN, VIOLIN

HELSINKI PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA, LEIF SEGERSTAM

ONDINE ODE 1016-2

 

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Christopher Rouse has become one of America’s most-performed orchestral composers. Born in Baltimore in 1949, Rouse’s studies with composers George Crumb and Karel Husa helped develop skills that eventually won him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Trombone Concerto (1990-1991).

A succession of concerti for various instruments followed. These included the Violin Concerto (1991) written for violinist Cho-Liang Lin, and the Guitar Concerto (1999), whose recording by Sharon Isbin won Rouse a Grammy in 2002 for “Best Contemporary Composition.” Thanks to his long association with conductor Marin Alsop, Rouse’s works are regularly performed at Santa Cruz’s Cabrillo Music Festival of Contemporary Music.

Rouse’s compositional style has gone through successive stages. Works from the 1980s and early ‘90s shared a melancholic preoccupation with darkness, death, grief, and despair. Subsequent pieces at first suggested that Rouse might have passed through the gloom and become more occupied by the light.

Not quite. At Cabrillo’s 2001 West Coast premiere of his Rapture (2000), Rouse confessed “man can not live by dread alone.” Acknowledging that the previous five years had found him “looking more to the light than to the abyss,” he stated that Rapture would be his “valedictory” exploration of light as he allowed himself to move in “other” directions.

To say that percussion plays a major part in Rouse’s compositions is an understatement. The man seems to thrive on the big bang. Even Rouse’s Violin Concerto is as dominated by percussion as by the sounds of the violin.

The First Edition disc is a remastering of two late ‘80s recordings by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, of which Rouse was composer-in-residence from 1986 through 1988. Both pieces were originally issued in 1989 on a single Nonesuch CD.

Great care has been taken to reissue these Judith Sherman-produced performances in the best possible sound. Liner note acknowledgements to Joe Fratus of Art Audio, Kevin Halverson of Muse Electronics, Ray Kimber of Kimber Kable, and Pierre Sprey of Mapleshade Records suggest a true audiophile collaborative effort.

Symphony No. 1 (1986) signaled Rouse’s intention to return to a time-honored compositional form that had been rejected by the radical serialists of the 20th century. The entire symphony was inspired by and built around a piece of music Rouse composed in 1976 while still a student. The symphony depicts a besieged and attacked hero “who is utterly destroyed, but whose destruction brings no such ennoblement to mankind.” Rouse likens it to death without transfiguration.

The 27-minute score consists of a slow, somber single-movement adagio. Dedicated to composer John Harbison, there is a direct reference to the opening theme of the adagio from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (here performed by a quartet of Wagner tubas). Rouse also employs the D-S-C-H (D-E flat-C-B) motive that Shostakovich used in some of his scores to signify his initials. Though the work that became the central part of the symphony was initially composed in response to a dream, the composer here associates it with the Pieta.

Phantasmata (1981/1985), the other work on the 46-minute CD, consists of three separately composed parts. With the title derived from physician and occultist Paracelsus’ use of the term phantasmata to refer to “hallucinations created by thought,” the work is hardly a bowl of cherries.

The first part, The Evestrum of Juan de la Cruz in the Sagrada Familia at 3 A.M., uses the Paracelsian term “evestrum” to refer to the astral body that extends out from the physical body. Scored for strings and percussion, the movement represents “a dreamt out-of-body somnambulatory journey through Antoni Gaudi’s Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.” The feeling is one of suspended, barely perceptible movement.

The second part, The Infernal Machine for full orchestra, presents a darker hallucinatory image of a sinister, self-sufficient machine eternally in motion for no particular purpose. Finally, Bump is a menacing, nightmarish offbeat conga which the wicked Rouse fantasized as a kind of Boston Pops performance in hell.

The Ondine 24-bit recording features more recent works. It begins with a definitive performance of Der Gerettete Alberich (1997), Rouse’s Fantasy for Solo Percussion and Orchestra dedicated to the disc’s astounding percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Opening with a theme from Wagner’s Die Götterdämmerung, the work explores the possibility that the distasteful dwarf Alberich continues to exist after Wagner’s Ring Cycle ends. Beautiful, emotion laden Wagnerian motifs emerge, only to find themselves tossed, turned, and pulverized by outrageous amounts of heavy metal percussion. In the course of the work, Alberich moves from sympathetic reflection on his tragic life to launching a rampage with the goal of world domination. Rouse is being more than a bit wicked here, slyly winking at us through the din. It’s a trip.

I first heard Rouse’s ecstatic Rapture (2000) at the 2001 Cabrillo Music Festival. Performed in Mission San Juan Bautista, the effect was incredible. Members of the audience, especially those closer up, were literally washed over and submerged by wave upon wave of joyful, light-filled music. It’s hardly the same experience listening to a recording, but that doesn’t lessen the beauty of this barely 13-minute work.

Rouse wrote the two-movement Violin Concerto (1991) for soloist Cho-Liang Lin. The work begins on an eerie note, with a gorgeous interplay between solo violin and strings. At times the music becomes demonic, like a dance of death. As with all of Rouse’s work, despite the morbidity and percussion that could rouse, there is a depth of feeling that makes the concerto quite compelling.

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LISA DELLA CASA SINGS BRACHMS • SCHUBERT

STRAUSS • WOLF • SCHUMANN

TESTAMENT SBT 1341

 

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Born in 1919, Swiss soprano Lisa Della Casa began performing on major stages in her early 20s. Starting in 1943, Zurich saw her in a succession of such roles as Gershwin’s Serena (Porgy and Bess), Mozart’s Pamina and Queen of the Night (Magic Flute), Verdi’s Gilda (Rigoletto), Puccini’s Mimi (La Bohéme), and Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier). Thanks to soprano Maria Cebotari, she assumed the role of Zdenka for the 1947 Salzburg revival of Richard Strauss’ Arabella. Her association with Strauss roles continued at the Vienna State Opera, where she sang Octavian, Arabella, the Countess in Capriccio, and eventually the Marschallin, Salome and Chrysothemis. Hers also became the first commercial recording of Strauss’ Four Last Songs, recorded at age 34.

Mozart roles were also a staple for this light, silvery soprano. The Countess was the role of her 1951 début at Glyndebourne and 1953 Met début. She remained at the Met until 1968, giving up the stage entirely in 1973.

If I dwell so much on Della Casa’s opera career, it is because she rarely gave performances of German lieder. Leaving that field to Irmgaard Siefried and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the two most respected soprano exponents of the genre in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, she instead focused on operatic roles.

Della Casa’s excellent as a song recitalist was first brought to my attention by a late ‘90s issue of a live recital given in Salzburg in 1957 (EMI Classics 723 5 66571 2 0). I marveled at the delicacy of her artistry, the silver shimmer of her unique timbre, and the subtlety of her expression.

Those feelings are only reinforced by this marvelous Testament issue of studio performances of Brahms, Schubert, Strauss, and Wolf lieder recorded in mono in 1956 (with Karl Hudez at the piano) and the eight songs of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, Op. 42, recorded in stereo in1962 (with Sebastian Peschko). Sticking to well-known songs by these composers, the 1956 recordings find Della Casa in ideal voice. Lieder such as Brahms’ “Von ewiger Liebe” and Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” are usually performed by singers with weightier voices. What a pleasure, then, to discover the new dimensions they take on when performed with such lightness and grace. You don’t have to be a vocal heavyweight to have these feelings, Della Casa seems to say. The beauty of her interpretations proves her correct.

Two of the four Brahms songs, three of the four Schubert, and three of the four Strauss were also recorded live in Salzburg. There are myriad differences in accents and emphasis. Della Casa was clearly quite comfortable in front of the microphone; the live performances are not necessarily better, just different. In fact, to these ears the often understated studio recordings frequently strike a deeper chord.

Special attention must be paid to Strauss’ “Befreit,” a six-minute song so beautifully developed and felt that it immediately defines what is special about Della Casa’s artistry. Certainly there are sopranos who swell more on the climax, but the economy of Della Casa’s expression allows the music to speak in the strongest possible terms.

The Frauenliebe und Leben shows the soprano in a less exuberant, more inward state. Perhaps benefiting from the passage into her early 40s, Della Casa’s tone takes on a newfound profundity that transforms Schumann’s cycle into a deeply personal confessional. Listeners who share my belief that these songs reinforce male stereotypes of how women are supposed to feel are encouraged to listen to this remarkable version. Della Casa, at times sounding urgent, sings as if every feeling were hers and hers alone.

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BUENOS AIRES MADRIGAL • LA CHIMERA • FURIO ZANASI * XIMENA BIONDO • M.A RECORDINGS MO63A

 

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With new distribution by Classiquest and Trade Secrets, Todd Garfinkle of M.A Recordings has released yet another of his extraordinary multi-cultural explorations. This time he mixes Argentine Tangos and 17th century Italian madrigals. The ostensible purpose of this curious mix is to “journey through the fundamental subject area that inspired both the old Italian Madrigal and the Buenos Aires Tango… Through migrations, solitude, conflicts, absence, dance, dreams, and death. Through the ‘places of the soul’ united and marked by irreparable loses, voyages of no return, hopes on the other shore, exercises in nostalgia.”

Oh my. Truth be told, lots and lots of music takes us on similar journeys, from early Appalachian folk music to rock ballads. I question just how much is revealed by the unusual juxtaposition of music from an earlier Italy and modern Argentina. But accepted on its own terms, as music per se, there is much here to enjoy.

Singers Furio Zanasi and Ximena Biondo y have the drama of Argentinean tango in their voices and blood. The longing and heart-throbbing emotion of Piazzolla, Gardel and other composers is milked for all it’s worth; nothing is left to the imagination. What’s most interesting is the extent to which the singers adopt similar modes of expression when performing tango and classic madrigals by Frescobaldi, Monteverdi, Cavalli, and de Rore. Listening to Zanasi first sing Troilo’s “Garüa” and followed by Monteverdi’s (attrib.) “Voglio di vita uscir” leaves me wondering which was is up.

Credit must go to the accompaniment by La Chimera, an excellent ensemble that mixes Argentinean bandoneón, harmonica, and guitar with violins, viola da gamba, baroque cello, double bass, and lutes. Their instrumental solos are quite beautiful, if not always authentic sounding. Definitely a disc worth exploring, with M.A’s spacious, demonstration-quality sonics a definite plus.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2004 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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