December 2011

Recordings

Robert Schumann, The Complete Works for Piano Trio – Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Tanja Tetzlaff, cello; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, on EMI Classics

A close look at the notes for this 2-disc set will give one some insight into the splendeurs et misères of the contemporary classical recording industry. A grant from Fond for lyd og bilde, the Norwegian arts organization, and Leif Ove Andsnes' Gilmore Artist Award funded this recording, making it possible for a major commercial label, EMI, to release a recording of comparatively little-known music by a great composer, played by internationally renowned musicians. Mr. Andsnes owns the copyright and has licensed the recording to EMI. Presumably the recording company didn't think that the famous names sufficed to counterbalance the obscurity and dubious reputation of the music, for unfortunately the trios, especially the second and third, were lumped in with the rest of what the older literature considered "bad Schumann," commonly disparaged as unmelodic, difficult, and confused. The rediscovery of these fascinating and very beautiful works has been one of the great pleasures of the past twenty years, once musicians learned how to play them and audiences, still slowly and partially, have learned how to listen to them.

Food & Drink

Some Roman Restaurants, a Thanksgiving Visit to the Eternal City

All serious visitors to Rome have a place that they always considered their personal find, but whose existence is inevitably revealed to the world at large, with a resulting change in ambience. Mine is Ristorante Pietro Valentini, just a few steps from the Hotel Portoghesi, where I have often stayed. This is the classic establishment of its sort – family run, and exactly seven tables in the place. But what set Pietro’s apart has always been the quality of the food and the supreme friendliness of Simona, the daughter-in-law of the family, who manages the room. Since the last time I was there the Internet had taken up the restaurant, and indeed some things were different on this trip. An American couple sent there by the concierge at the Excelsior sat in front of me. That did not bother me as much as the absence of two rituals that opened a meal at Pietro’s...
Food & Drink

Festive Cooking: the Search for Authentic British Lasagne

On this ship I am Cook. Hence my activities on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter are customarily pretty well established. I may experiment with the stuffing, or we may find some exciting novelty, like Holy Smokes’ fabulous smoked turkeys, but that doesn't bring any major variation in the drill. I've even grown more efficient over the years, so that's it's not particularly laborious anymore. In parallel with these prescribed actions, my mind spends Thanksgiving in a mildly crazed reverie of a nostalgic or wistful bent—at least it has been so since 2004, when, as I was readying to make my initial attack on the bird, the telephone rang, with a journalist at the other end, who asked if I would answer a few questions about an elementary school classmate of mine who was in the political spotlight at the time. The journalist seemed personable and serious, and I found myself happy to talk to him, the cordless phone cradled on my shoulder, as I seasoned the turkey and put it in the oven. He'd spoken to a good many others—school friends I remembered, others I'd forgotten...teachers as well, including our inspiring Latin teacher, Joe Agnelli, who helped set me off on a long voyage in Classical waters, the ancient world—the other hemisphere of history. The family thought I was crazy to talk on the phone like that, but there seemed no reason not to, as long as I had the use of my hands.
Music

Jonathan Nott Conducts the Sydney Symphony in Brahms, Brett Dean and Schubert

Jonathan Nott has a light touch. The subtlety and clarity he encourages from each instrument, treating each with equal importance, allows in a way the music to speak for itself. He does not try to do too much to put his impression on the piece. His conducting is particularly sublime in the very soft sections of the music where he is not afraid to bring the sound level down to a barely audible level, but still with great clarity and texture. In this way the Violin Concerto, "Lost Art" by Brett Dean is well suited to his style. The Australian composer was commissioned to write the piece in 2007 by the Cologne Philharmonie and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for Frank Zimmermann to whom the piece is dedicated. It is now heard for the first time in Sydney.

Wagner

Richard Wagner, The Valkyrie, Virginia Opera Center Stage, Richmond

Virginia Opera has built a reputation for solid productions of opera, featuring young voices under the baton of distinguished conductors like Joseph Rescigno. Its new production of The Valkyrie by Richard Wagner is no exception to that rule. Rescigno, who studied under Erich Leinsdorf, has a strong affinity for the sound and architecture of Wagnerian motifs and produced remarkably fine tones and ensemble playing from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. The orchestral component became increasingly dominant for Wagner in the Ring and Parsifal, and it was good to have such a fine standard of strings in this production. The singers, too, gave vocal performances of a uniformly high quality in a production by Lillian Groag that did not impose too much of a “thesis” on Wagner’s mythopeic creation, allowing visual tableaux and lighting to point the story. The Richmond venue was the old Carpenter Theatre, a 1920s, Alhambra-style cinematic confection; wide and shallow, it conveyed a sense of intimacy despite its 1800-seat capacity. The production was a fast-paced event, which at three hours (including a 25-minute intermission) was shorter than Gone with the Wind! And what could be wrong with that? My only caveat is that this was not Wagner’s Die Walküre, which unfolds leisurely over more than four hours, but rather a radically reduced fumet of the original. While that may be a plus for many modern opera-goers, it is manifestly not what the composer intended.
New York Arts in Australia

Vivaldi’s Griselda From the Pinchgut Opera of Sydney

"Modernized Opera" can sound a little scary, especially if implicitly (mis-)associated with the term "upgrade" which came out of Hollywood and Silicon Valley almost simultaneously in the last several years. Perhaps this is why some people are so against it: it sounds as if their changing the notes to modern notes! Or completely reversing the tone of the opera in some sardonic way. Operas should not be modernized because they are old but because it makes sense to do so. The two terms in quotes shouldn't be associated at all: the former is a style, the latter a consumerist slogan and a euphemism for dumbing-down. Bringing the action of the opera into the present either explicitly or in some less realistic or even abstracted way, where there is a motivation, can be a wonderful thing and be high art. When the imagery the designer and director create make poetical and musical sense in the way it unfolds through the piece, with its own internal logic compatible with that of the music, it is a wonderful thing and there is no reason modern images are necessarily excluded from this (there is the problem of literal contradictions in the libretto, references to "pastorella" or "boschi" or "selva" in an opera taken to the modern inner city, but those are a separate matter).

New York Arts in Boston

Charpentier’s La Couronne de Fleurs and La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers by the Boston Early Music Society

Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of two Marc-Antoine Charpentier chamber operas took us from the playful, elegant, high baroque world of the court of Louis XIV, into something more serious and grave, and then back out again. First we were given most of La Couronne de Fleurs, a Pastoral probably not meant for full staging, where Flore, goddess of spring—well sung, and acted with spirit, by soprano Mireille Asselin—summons up the season and then proposes to shepherds and shepherdesses a contest to praise Louis XIV’s military triumphs, the winner to receive the crown of flowers of the title. After the conventional tributes are made, the production turns to the short opera La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, presenting it as a further entry in the poetic contest, though this is done a bit awkwardly, since the piece does not refer to Louis. The Orpheus opera seems not to have been finished by Charpentier, having only two acts instead of the usual three, and stopping with the beginning of Orpheus’s ascent from the Underworld with his lover Euridice rescued from death. We do not get the familiar incident of his prohibited looking back at her and thus permanent loss of her.

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