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Staatskapelle Berlin Perform in NYC

Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Staatskapelle Berlin, photo by Fadi Kheir

At Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, on two consecutive evenings beginning on Thursday, November 30th, I had the privilege to attend two concerts featuring the Staatskapelle Berlin—under the enthusiastic direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin—presenting the complete symphonies of Johannes Brahms.

The first program began with a creditable version of the Symphony No. 1. After a portentous introduction marked Un poco sostenuto, the main body of the initial Allegro has a dynamism that strongly recalls that of the mature symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven but it ends quietly. The Andante sostenuto that follows is lyrical and Romantic but not without an undercurrent of urgency, while the ensuing Un poco allegretto e grazioso movement is graceful and melodious. The memorable finale—an Allegro non troppo, ma con brio—after a suspenseful introduction builds excitingly, and sometimes dramatically, to a powerfully affirmative conclusion.

The second half of the evening featured a rewarding account of the Symphony No. 2. The opening Allegro non troppo was enchanting on the whole—but with some darker, more intense moments—closing serenely. The succeeding Adagio non troppo is somber and more inward in orientation—but with some expansive passages—and finishes softly. The third movement, with a tempo marking of Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino), has an effervescence that is uncommon for the composer, while the ultimate impression of the finale, an Allegro con spirito, is one of exuberance and it ends triumphantly.

The second night was somehow much more extraordinary, starting with a magnificent realization of the marvelous Symphony No. 3. The first, Allegro con brio movement begins strongly but much of it is relatively subdued, with a gracious, almost pastoral quality. The ensuingAndanteis charming throughout and the Poco allegretto third movement is hauntingly beautiful with a famous main theme that Serge Gainsbourg reproduced for his song, "Baby alone in Babylone,” recorded with Jane Birkin. The finale is more assertive in general, but with some more delicate episodes, and closes gently.

Also brilliant was a thrilling performance of the astonishing Symphony No. 4. The work opens bewitchingly with an Allegro non troppo that is enthrallingly energetic, preceding an Andante moderato that is also thoroughly captivating. The scherzo, an Allegro giocoso, is unusually buoyant for Brahms, and the finale, marked Allegro energico e passionato, is fiery, despite calmer sections, and dazzling in its intricacy. The musicians deservedly received a standing ovation.

December '23 Digital Week I

In-Theater Releases of the Week 
(Apple Films)
Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic marches through Napoleon Bonaparte’s life—well, the last quarter-century or so, from the French Revolution until his banishment to St. Helena after the battle of Waterloo in 1815—in 2 hours and 38 minutes, which gives this handsomely mounted, superbly shot and briskly paced biopic a “greatest hits” vibe. Much of his battlefield genius along with his relationship with wife Josephine are recounted at length but without, almost inevitably, much depth.
Still, it’s solid filmmaking from an accomplished veteran, although it’s too bad that Stanley Kubrick never was able to make his own Napoleon back in the 1970s. Joaquin Phoenix gives a strangely inert portrayal of Napoleon, looking out of sorts and even out of period. Conversely, Vanessa Kirby is a superlative Josephine, catching all the nuances of character that Phoenix apparently decided to ignore. 
Based on the novel by Ottessa Moshfegh (who also cowrote the script), William Oldroyd’s drama follows the eponymous character, working rather anonymously in a local prison while taking care of her alcoholic, violent widowed father—until she finds herself drawn to Rebecca, the new prison counselor, who soon brings her into a nefarious plot she wasn’t expecting.
Rather than being a psychologically complex thriller, Eileen is a “meh” melodrama distinguished by fine acting by Tomasin McKenzie (Eileen), Anne Hathaway (Rebecca), Shea Whigham (Eileen’s dad) and, in a shattering scene, Marin Ireland as the trigger of Rebecca’s ruse.
4K/UHD Releases of the Week 
The Color Purple 
(Warner Bros)
Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s tough but sentimental novel also alternates between saccharine and vinegar: sequences as powerful as anything Spielberg ever directed butt heads with some of his most sugary scenes (usually accompanied by Quincy Jones’ syrupy score). Allen Daviau’s sublime color photography, however, has no such drawbacks, and on this 4K edition, the film’s remarkable visual achievements are brilliantly reinforced.
The acting from then-unknowns as Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery is excellent, making this an overwhelming emotional experience despite Spielberg’s and Jones’ melodramatic tendencies. Extras, ported over from the Blu-ray and DVD releases, include interviews with Spielberg, Walker, cast and crew.
The Expendables 1-4 
(Lionsgate Steelbook—Walmart Exclusive)
All four films in this agreeably slight adventure series about a group of mercenaries who go out on all sorts of dangerous missions are included in this steelbook edition—totaling 8 discs, comprising both 4K and Blu-ray versions—and it’s easy to sort out which are worth watching: the first pair are entertaining, while 3 and 4 bring up the rear.
Sylvester Stallone (who also directed the first entry), Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, 50 Cent and Megan Fox are the fairly interchangeable stars who appear in one or more films. All four pictures are explosive-looking in UHD; extras include interviews and on-set featurettes.
Blu-ray Releases of the Week 
Buster Keaton Collection Volume 5—Three Ages and Our Hospitality 
(Cohen Film Collection)
Two classic silent comedies by Buster Keaton (both from 1923, the first two features Keaton directed) get a hi-def upgrade from Cohen, which helps underline Keaton’s incredible comic flair throughout these often breathtakingly original films. 
Three Ages, set during the Stone Age, ancient Rome and the Jazz Age, and Our Hospitality, about a Hatfields-McCoys kind of feud, show off Keaton's timeless comic genius again and again. These restorations are for the most part first-rate—with a few glitches from subpar materials—but the lack of any extras is a definite minus.
Eye for an Eye—The Blind Swordsman 
(Well Go USA)
At a fleet 78 minutes, director Bingjia Yang’s action-packed martial-arts flick takes its fizzy plot device—the title character, a bounty hunter, decides to avenge the massacre of an entire family—and runs with it, setting everything up quickly and adroitly.
The second half is left to the devices of our sightless hero, exceedingly well acted by Xie Miao, and a series of ever more outlandish but enjoyable fight sequences that make scant sense but are viscerally satisfying. It all looks great on Blu-ray.
South Park—Complete 26th Season 
Only six episodes make up the latest season of one of the most subversive comedies to ever grace American television—and now streaming—networks but, as usual, Trey Parker and Matt Stone still come up aces…at least part of the time.
Three episodes are definite keepers—the dangers of A.I., the wonders of Japanese toilets, and the desperate attempts of a certain royal couple that wants to be left alone—and if the others lack comic propulsion, there are enough assorted laughs (both cheap and well-earned) that make the latest journey worth it. The episodes look great in hi-def.
Wagner—Der Meistersinger von Nurnberg 
German composer Richard Wagner wasn’t known for his light touch, and his lone operatic comedy, premiered in 1868, is not a gleefully funny romp but rather a four-hour exploration of the magical power of music that aligns some of his most beautiful melodies alongside a tone-deaf, clunky “Germany uber alles” subtext that can’t be ignored however wondrous the opera sounds.
It took three directors (Jossi Wieler,  Sergio Morabito and Anna Viebrock, the latter also one of the set and costumer designers) to conspire to set it in a contemporary classroom, where there don’t seem to be any high stakes, despite lovely vocal performances by Johan Reuter (as hero Hans Sachs), Klaus Florian Vogt (his protégé Walther) and Heidi Stober (as his paramour Eva). John Fiore ably conducts the Berlin Opera orchestra and chorus. There’s first-rate video and audio.
CD Release of the Week 
Grażyna Bacewicz—Orchestral Works, Volume 1 
Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) was the first 20th-century Polish female composer to earn recognition for her startlingly original scores, and this disc—the first volume in the Chandos label’s new series of her works—is the perfect place to start to learn about her music.
Her Symphonies No. 3 and 4 are highly expressive, original works that put the inventive interplay among the orchestra’s members front and center; also included is her lively Overture. Performing brilliantly on the disc is the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the guiding hand of conductor Sakari Omaro. Here’s to several more volumes of this grievously underrated—and underheard—composer’s music.

Juan Diego Flórez Dazzles at Carnegie Hall

Juan Diego Flórez, photo by Steve J. Sherman

At Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium on the night of Wednesday, November 29th, I had the exceptional pleasure of attending a wonderful recital featuring the marvelous tenor, Juan Diego Flórez—he is one of the most appealing operatic talents of our time—admirably accompanied by pianist Vincenzo Scalera, in a program that was especially refreshing for its focus on less commonly encountered repertory.

The first half of the event, in which the singer seemed at least slightly underpowered, was devoted to Italianate music, beginning with Christoph Willibald Gluck’s memorable aria, “O del mio dolce ardor,” from his late, now rarely performed 1770 opera, Paride ed Elena. A highlight of the evening was the incredibly beautiful song, “Amarilli, mia bella,” by Giulio Romolo Caccini from his 1602 collection, Le nuove musiche. The next song was another example of early music, Giacomo Carissimi’s solo cantata “Vittoria, mio core!” of 1656 from his Canzonette amorose.

The first half concluded with a set of works, mostly not often played, by Gioachino Rossini, beginning with three selections from his late collection, Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age). The first of these, which is from the third volume, was “L’esule” (“The Exile”), followed by “La lontananza” (“Distant Love”), which is from the first volume. Scalera then performed “Danse Sibérienne” from the volume of solo piano pieces. Flórez then sang two arias: first, “Deh! tu m'assisti amore" from Il signor Bruschino, an opera that premiered in 1813 and that Rossini composed when he was only twenty and which, according to Janet E. Bedell’s program note, is famous today for its overture; and second, the double aria known as acavatina-cabaletta,"La speranza più soave,” from the last of the composer’s Italian operas, the more well-knownSemiramide,which premiered in 1823 and was adapted from Voltaire’s tragedy Semiramis.

The second half of the concert was much more impressive, with Flórez’s voice sounding much stronger and with the singer truly coming into his own with the Romantic repertory. He began with “Linda! Si ritirò!” and theromanza, “Se tanto in ira agli uomini,” from Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix, which premiered in 1842 and is described as a “pastoral romance” by the annotator, who adds that is “rarely revived today, but remains a cherished work for aficionados of bel canto opera.” About the next selection, she usefully writes:

Far more obscure is Donizetti’s unfinished opera Il duca d’Alba, originally commissioned by the Opéra national de Paris in 1839 as the grand opera Le duc d’Albeto a libretto by the famous Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier. Unaccountably, the Opéra decided to terminate the commission after Donizetti had written about half the score. He then turned his attention to another libretto for Paris, La favorite, staged successfully in 1840. (Interestingly, in 1855 Scribe and Duveyrier’s libretto was revised into Les vêpres siciliennes for Verdi.)

Thirty-four years after Donizetti’s death, the Milanese publisher Lucca entrusted Donizetti’s one-time pupil Matteo Salvi with the task of completing Il duca d’Alba now in an Italian translation; this was premiered in Rome in 1882. And it was Salvi, not Donizetti, who actually composed the beautiful tenor aria “Angelo casto e bel.”

Much less obscure was Giuseppe Verdi’s “Questa o quella” from his celebrated opera, Rigoletto, that premiered in 1851. Flórez then sang the recitative, “L’émir auprès de lui m’appelle,” with its accompanying aria, “Je veux encore entendre.” About their source, Bedell explains:

Jérusalem fulfilled Verdi’s first commission for the Opéra national de Paris in 1847, but it wasn’t a new creation: Instead, it was a translation into French and revision of his fourth opera,I Lombardi, premiered at Milan’s La Scala in 1843.

She comments that the “aria will be familiar to many listeners, for it is Lombardi’s well-known ‘La mia letizia infondere.’” And about the next work, she summarizes:

Verdi rarely wrote for instruments alone, but Vincenzo Scalera opens this section with a brief piece he composed in 1844, “Romanza senza parole” (“Romance without Words”). In 1865, Verdi’s first publisher, Giovanni Canti, turned to various prominent composers of the day to assemble a collection of short piano pieces entitled Gioie e sospiri (Joys and Sighs). Grateful for Canti’s help when he needed it most, Verdi offered this romanza.

The aubade that followed, Edouard Lalo’s “Vainement, ma bien-aimée,” was probably the most beautiful selection in the program. About the composer and its source, the annotator remarks:

The greatest triumph of his career, however, came in 1888 when he premiered his opera Le roi d’Ys at Paris’s Opéra-Comique. Originally written in 1875, it had initially been turned down by the Opéra national de Paris, but Lalo’s revision over the next decade finally led to its warm embrace by French audiences. 

She also records, “Premiering on April 27, 1867—only a month after Verdi’s Don Carlos debuted at the Opéra national de Paris—Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette enjoyed a far greater success than Verdi’s grand opera.” Flórez performed the aria “Ah! lève-toi, soleil” from that work.

The program proper concluded with two selections by Giacomo Puccini, starting with one of his few purely instrumental works, a piano piece here played by Scalera, titled “Foglio d’album” (“Page in an Album”) and marked Moderato, con affètto (“with tenderness”), about which Bedell says it is “believed to have been written in either 1907 or 1910 in New York City while Puccini was assisting with productions of his operas at the Metropolitan Opera.” Bedell is also informative on the background of the final aria:

The Central European legend of thevila—young women betrayed by their lovers who turn into dancing nocturnal spirits bent on vengeance—received its most famous dramatic representation in Adolphe Adam’s classic ballet Giselle in 1846. Four decades later, Puccini chose it for his first opera, Le Villi, composed for a competition in 1884. Though it didn’t win, composer-librettist Arrigo Boito was sufficiently impressed that he backed it for a premiere at the Teatro dal Verme in Milan. However, when other theaters mounted Le Villi, the initial excitement dissipated as Italian audiences rejected it as “too Wagnerian.”

Flórez sang what she describes as “its greatest number,” the scena drammatica “Torna ai felice dì”—which was added by the composer in 1885—preceded by its opening recitative (“Ecco la casa”).

An enormously enthusiastic reception was rewarded by the artists with an amazing seven encores, several with the singer accompanying himself on guitar including the Peruvian anthem "La flor de la canela,” "El día que me quieres" by Carlos Gardel and the exceedingly popular "Cucurrucucú paloma.”

Juilliard Orchestra Perform at Lincoln Center

Thomas Wilkins conducts Juilliard Orchestra, photo by Claudio Papapietro

At Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on the evening of Monday, November 20th, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a superb concert featuring the excellent musicians of the Juilliard Orchestra, here under the impressive direction of Thomas Wilkins.

The program began auspiciously with a thoroughly engaging account of George Gershwin’s marvelous, enormously popular An American in Paris from 1928.The composer commented interestingly upon it that, “if it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds.”

Four admirable soloists—Paige Quillen, Carys Sutherland, Emily Howell, and Colby Kleven—then took the stage for a pleasurable rendition of Robert Schumann’s fine, too seldom performed Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra in F Major, Op. 86, from 1849, played here in the early 2000s arrangement by Kerry Turner which, in the program note by Sutherland, is described as “audibly indistinguishable from the original for the audience,” adding:

Schumann’s original manuscript gives nearly every virtuosic passage to only the first horn, with the other players mostly serving as backup harmony. This arrangement divides the high passages between the first and second horns, and the third and fourth horns dazzle in the Romance while the first two take a much-needed rest. The overall result is that the players are equally involved technically and melodically, making this truly a four-horn concerto.

The spirited initial movement has a Mendelssohnian quality that persists throughout the work as a whole, while the slower Romance that follows is contrastingly elevated and the very fastfinaleis exuberant and propulsive, returning to something closer to theethosof the first movement. The artists earned vigorous applause.

The second half of the event was even stronger, a sterling realization of Florence Price’s extraordinary, recently rediscovered Symphony No. 3 in C Minor from 1940, which reverts to an approach involving popular idioms that is closer to that which characterizes An American in Paris. The opening Allegro—which has a solemn, Andante introduction—is frequently boisterous—but with echoes of Gershwin and Aaron Copland that can seemingly be discerned elsewhere in the piece as well—and ends abruptly. The ensuing movement, marked Andante ma non troppo, is more inward in orientation while the buoyant and playful third movement is anAllegrowith some placid moments that iscast in the form of thejuba,explained by the annotator as:

...a style of dance originating from Kongo slaves in the pre-Civil War South. Because drums were forbidden on many plantations, the dance involved clapping and stomping, and may be the origin of modern tap dance...

Thefinale—aScherzo—is ebullient with dramatic passages and closes powerfully. The performers were rewarded with an enthusiastic ovation.

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