Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Friday, 11 November 2022

RIMSKY-KORSKOV Christmas Eve Frankfurt Opera

Sebastian Weigle, cond
Georgy Vasiliev (Vakula)
Julia Muzychenko (Oksana)
Enkelejda Shkoza (Solokha)
Alexey Tikhomirov (Chub)
Andrei Popov (Devil)
Anthony Robin Schneider (Panas)
Sebastian Geyer (Mayor)
Ossip Nikiforovich Peter Marsh (Deacon)
Bianca Andrew (Tsarina)
Frankfurt Opera Chorus
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchster
Naxos 0154 (Blu-ray: 153:00)

This video comes from a staging at Frankfurt Opera in December 21/January 22 of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy-tale opera with a Christmas theme. The libretto is based on a short story by Gogol, the same story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s Valuka the Smith. The Tchaikovsky opera was later updated as Cherevichki, which is marginally the more popular of the three, and from which several story elements here may be familiar. Gogol’s tale mixes a peasant love story, set in a provincial Ukrainian village, with magical elements—the Devil, a witch—obliging the director to decide on a folksy or a fantastical setting. Christof Loy goes for the latter, with scenery that suggests outer space and lots of trapeze work for the Devil’s flights. But the costumes are more down-to-earth, and the love story is presented with due intimacy. There are also several dance numbers and a ridiculous farce scene, so it all adds up to a well-rounded package of Christmas entertainment.

The basic set is a white box, mapped out on all sides by square grid lines and specked with stars. A huge moon initially fills the stage, and we meet the Devil (Andrei Popov) and the witch Solokha (Enkelejda Shkoza) as the two scheme to obscure its light. Their goal is to prevent Solokha’s son, Valuka (Georgy Vasiliev), finding his way to his love, Oksana (Julia Muzychenko). They also conjure a snowstorm to hinder him, and the visuals are suitably dramatic, with both the Devil and Solokha riding around on trapezes. In the story, Solokha is only suspected of witchcraft, but Loy is unambiguous and has her riding on a broom. Most of the principals in the cast are Russian, so we get good diction and idiomatic singing. However, the female singers outclass the male voices, as is demonstrated immediately by the superiority of Shkoza over the less stable or secure singing of Vasiliev.

In the second scene we meet Oksana. She praises her own beauty and generally monologues about how she is going to tease Valuka. When he arrives, she announces that she will only marry him if he brings her the Tsarina’s slippers. Both Oksana and Valuka have many monologues, their inner thoughts delivered directly to the audience, and Muzychenko is more dramatically convincing than Vasiliev, always finding some well-timed flirtation where he just stands and delivers. She has the superior voice, too. Vasiliev is lyrical, almost Italianate, but Rimsky demands more rigor, even of his romantic leads.

The second act opens with farce. The Devil visits Solokha, but is forced to hide in a sack when as a string of hopeful suitors visit—the Mayor (Sebastian Geyer), the Deacon (Peter Marsh), and the elderly Cossack Chub (Alexey Tikhomirov)—each also ending up in a sack as the next arrives. Russian bass Tikhomirov is the pick of these voices, a rich tone but agile enough for the comedy. Rimsky does not quite get the pace right here, and the successive appearances feel labored. Donizetti would have done a better job, and Ravel certainly did a few decades later. Valuka arrives and takes away all the sacks, unaware of their contents, and the four men emerge in his smithy to general embarrassment all round.

The third act is the most demanding in terms of magic and special effects. Valuka forces the Devil to fly him to St. Petersburg, and one whole scene is an orchestral interlude given over to the flight. Here, we get a ballerina dancing with a bear, for no obvious reason, but it is a fun interlude. The brief scene at the royal palace presents the chorus in regal costumes but no new sets. Mezzo Bianca Andrew is suitably regal as the Tsarina, but it is a tiny role.

In the final act, Valuka returns to the village, presents the slippers, and the couple are married. There is plenty of hearty choral writing in the finale, and while the Frankfurt chorus is strong, we begin to feel the lack of heavy Russian basses. Rimsky also includes an epilogue, a homage to Gogol. That would probably make more sense to Russian audiences, and here requires a portrait to be held aloft, to make clear what they are singing about.

The aesthetic is generally clear and straightforward, visually coherent, but not as homely as the folk story suggests. There is a lot of trapeze work, with the Devil, Solokha, and Valuka all singing from high wires, an impressive feat. The feel is modern, but nothing is gratuitous, and Loy makes no efforts to impose his own narrative. And the celestial theme is elegant and imaginative—suitably magical for a Christmas story.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle gives a vigorous and lively account of the score. Some of quieter music sometimes invite a more nuanced and atmospheric approach, but the music’s clean lines complement the similarly efficient visual themes. The sound quality is fantastic. Frankfurt Opera have their own in-house recording team. They used to collaborate with Oehms Classics, and the results were always excellent. Oehms has recently been bought up by Naxos, and that collaboration looks set to continue with the parent company. Rimsky’s orchestration is as colorful as his reputation would have us expect, and it is all captured with warmth and detail in this involving surround sound mix. Some of the instruments, the harp in particular, seem over-amplified, at least in comparison with live balances, but the spotlighting is always welcome. Subtitles are in English, French, Japanese, and Korean.

This is the first ever video release of the opera. Two audio versions precede it, a 1948 Moscow radio recording conducted by Nikolai Golovanov, and a Chant Du Monde release, also with Moscow forces and conducted by Michail Jurowski, from 1990. Both have been well received, with the 1948 version preferred for its superior cast. This new account is generally well sung, though it could do with stronger male leads, and is clearly first choice for audio. The production is fun too, and only requires a minimal tolerance for modern staging to get into the Christmas mood.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine, issue 46:4.

Monday, 31 October 2022

Barry In The Asylum Fidelio Trio

All day at home busy with my own affairs
Le Vieux Sourd
Baroness von Ritkart
In the Asylum
Triorchic Blues

Fidelio Trio
Darragh Morgan (vn)
Rose Redgrave (va)
Adi Tal (vc)
Mary Dullea (pn)
Gerald Barry (pn)

MODE 332 (63:00)

The Irish composer Gerald Barry (b. 1952) has a singular voice. He studied in Cologne with Stockhausen and Kagel, the two teachers passing down iconoclasm and absurdist humor respectively. Barry’s music avoids direct expression, favoring instead mechanistic repetitions and angular but unpredictable rhythmic processes. Repeating note cells churn away, without nuance but with pauses interspersed seemingly at random, as if satirizing the concept of phrase structure. It is a confrontational aesthetic, more often met in the concert hall or opera theater—Thomas Adès has championed his orchestral music and his operas, most notably The Importance of Being Ernest, have been well received on both sides of the Atlantic, his humor taken as a bold corrective to the seriousness of other major contemporary opera composers. Here, we have a collection of chamber works, for various combinations related to the piano trio (plus or minus one instrument) that demonstrates a similar aggressive playfulness, set in an even clearer perspective by the austerity of means.

The program opens with 1998 for violin and piano. In his typically esoteric liner notes, Barry compares the course of the music to the trajectories mapped in a particle accelerator. But he has no intention of telling us where the music came from, just how it appears to him now, “It is as if it were written by someone else and I woke to find it at the bottom of my bed like a Grimm fairytale.” The performance, by violinist Darrah Morgan (the motivating force behind the project) and pianist Mary Dullea, is excellent. The expression, or rather lack of it, is deadpan from both players, but the Pointillistic textures are maintained, without flagging or fatigue, for the full 22 minutes of the work’s duration.

All day at home busy with my own affairs is a short solo piano work performed here by the composer himself. It dates from 2015 and also forms part of his as-yet unperformed opera Salome. Does this recording date from the same sessions as the other works? The piano seems duller and less immediate, but that might just be Barry’s more sullen approach to keyboard technique.

Midday is performed here in a version for violin and piano, but it also exists, the composer tells us, in a “loud version” for eight horns and two wind machines. That is hard to square with the delicate pizzicato textures and high violin filigrees we hear throughout this version. Les Vieux Sourd for solo piano, is a chaotic disassembly of Auld Lang Syne. Baroness von Ritkart is a series of three very gentle miniatures for violin and piano. These show a different side to Barry’s compulsive aesthetic, closer to the daydream ambivalence of early Cage. The two following works also open with gentle textures, In the Asylum, for piano trio, which gives the album its title, and Ø, for piano quartet. But the disorder is soon ramped up, making the listening experience increasingly surreal and disorientating. Finally, Triochic Blues, not a blues, of course, but a portrait of a three-testicled castrato on the run from Dublin magistrates. As ever with Barry, the music is only slightly less lurid than the composer’s own descriptions, with the three instruments of the piano trio matching each other in exact unison in an erratic caper around registral extremes.

The Fidelio Trio and friends do an excellent job of presenting Barry’s music, presenting everything straight-up, without any direct acknowledgment of the humor and sarcasm, which are more than capable of making themselves felt. The recordings were made at the Music Department of Queen’s University, Belfast and, with the curious exception of the composer’s piano solo, all sound fine. The liner notes by the composer are as infuriating as the music itself, short aphoristic texts relating, often tangentially, to each work and an autobiographical essay, “Never was a shade” that defies any description from me. In sum, a representative survey of Gerald Barry’s often challenging chamber music, and a fine addition to a discography otherwise dominated by recordings of his operas.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.




Thursday, 13 October 2022

Reger Organ Works Volume 8 Weinberger

Monologe, op. 63 Book 1/1-4, Book 2/5-8, Book 3/6,7

Leicht ausführbare Vorspiele zu den gebräuchlichsten evangelischen Chorälen, op. 67/1–5,8–11,16,15–18,23,25,30,31,35

Variationen und Fuge über “Heil, unserm König, Heil,” WoO IV/7

Leicht ausführbares Präludium und Fuge, op. 56 Nr. 4

Kompositionen, op. 79b/5–7,10,12. Präludien und Fugen, op. 85/1,2,4

Gerhard Weinberger (org)

CPO 555 342–2 (2 SACDs: 128:31)





This double-SACD album is Volume 8 in Gerhard Weinberger’s Reger Organ Works series on CPO. By my reckoning, that makes it the final installment, although there is nothing in the publicity to say as much. The programming for this cycle has been eccentric, to say the least, with Weinberger dividing up the many large collections of short works and distributing them across several volumes. The reason for this appears to be that many different organs are used, and Weinberger presumably wishes to allocate the individual works as best suits the instruments. But the consequence for this final volume is that there is a lot of mopping up to do. Most of the works presented here are modest processionals and interludes for liturgical use, some Catholic (op. 63), some Protestant. Other works from the opp. 56 and 79b sets appeared on the previous release. But there, as in previous installments, Weinberger slotted those short works in as fillers behind more substantial concert pieces. This time round, it is just the small works. That makes for an agreeable consistency across the program, and keeps Reger’s megalomania at bay.

Disc 1 is recorded on the Walcker organ of the Lutherkirche in Wiesbaden. That was an important town in Reger’s life, but the instrument was built in 1911, after he lived there, so he probably would not have known it. Even so, the thinking behind this cycle has been to chose “historical instruments from Reger’s days,” and all have proved to be splendid. The organ is of medium size, with three manuals and a disposition that fits on one page of the liner. The size feels just right for these Monologues and Preludes. The most obvious competition is from Bernhard Buttmann on Ohms. He plays these works on a larger organ, which can sometimes feel constrained and underused. Weinberger, by contrast, seems to approach the capacity of his instrument. Also, the recorded sound is closer, with less reverberance than for Buttmann, which gives the overall sound profile a straightforward, no-nonsense character. There is still warmth, but everything is within the modest scale of the music. The first disc closes with an oddity, the Variations and Fugue on “Heil, unserm König,” i.e., “God Save the King,” i.e., “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” At the time—1901—it was assumed the work had been written to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria, but it was written earlier. Reger wrote that the piece is as easy as possible, in order to appeal to organists with “weak technique.” Here, and throughout the program, Weinberger uses the straightforward textures to display the range of tone colors at his disposal. And in this work, the recognizability of the melody allows us to hear Reger’s contrapuntal working with unusual clarity.

Disc 2 is recorded on the Jehmlich organ at the Stadtkirche, Pößneck in Thuringia. This instrument is about the same size, but the church is smaller. A photograph in the liner shows an ornate organ case with filigreed pillars, almost touching the flat ceiling above. Again, the program is made up of short works for Protestant liturgy. The most substantial pieces are the three preludes and fugues from op. 85. Weinberger selects airy, open-sounding stops here, and provides much variety though his range of dynamics. The first prelude begins particularly quietly, and the music often returns to this level. You might need to raise the volume occasionally, but these quiet passages are particularly lovely.

As usual, CPO provides full organ registrations and extensive liner notes, on both the organs and the works, well translated for the most part. Given Weinberger’s choice of instruments, this deserves to be considered a period-performance cycle of Reger’s music. The difference that makes is slight in most volumes, but in this, presumably, final installment, the modest scale of the organs employed is an interesting and attractive feature.



This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.


Sunday, 9 October 2022

Telemann Johannis-Oratorium Willens

 TELEMANN Gelobet sei der Herr. Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand

 Michael Alexander Willens, cond; Rahel Maas, Elena Harsányi (sop); Elvira Bill (alt); Mirko Ludwig (ten); Klaus Mertens (bbar); Mauro Borgioni (bs); Kölner Akademie

CPO 555 271-2 (78:47)


Michael Alexander Willens has been surveying Telemann’s sacred choral music for several years on CPO. After numerous releases of sacred cantatas, in 2019, he turned his attention to the Michaelis-Oratorium (CPO 555 214-2, reviewed by James Altena 43:2). Telemann’s sacred oratorios are much like his cantatas, musical interludes for church services. They are loosely structured around Biblical narratives, but with regular contributions for allegorical characters too. They are generally grand affairs, designed for special occasions and feast days. The major work here, at almost an hour, Gelobet sei der Herr, was written for the Feast of St. John, and Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand for Misericordias Domini, the Third Sunday after Easter. The librettos are by the Hamburg poet Albrecht Jacob Zell, and when published were dedicated to the more familiar Barthold Heinrich Brockes.

Zell takes a tangential approach to the birth and naming of John the Baptist, taking his narrative instead from the Book of Exodus, the common themes prophesy and salvation. The story tells of the flight from Egypt, from the death of Pharoh’s son to the parting of the Red Sea. The chorus variously portrays the Israelites and the Egyptians, most dramatically at the Red Sea, “Das Meer ist zerteilt,” where the two groups alternate, back and forth, across the waters.

For all the implied drama, note writer Ute Poetsch informs us that Telemann had only about 20 instrumentalists at his disposal, which is about the number Willens employs. Still, there is plenty of dramatic tension here. There is also an interesting solo timpani number near the end, which segues into drum-themed chorus of praise, “Schlaget die Pauken.” The chorus is also of modest size (15 singers listed) but delivers forceful accents and swift dynamic shifts as required. Telemann writes some elegant woodwind obbligatos, and the warm sound of the Baroque flutes in a modest church acoustic (the recording was made in the Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal) is a satisfying support to the aria “Als Sklaven mussten wir am Joch der Sünden ziehen.”

That number is taken by bass Mauro Borgioni, in the role of “Divine Contemplation” (he also plays a timorous-sounding God). He is one of several young soloists employed here for the brief arias and recitatives. Sopranos Rahel Maas and Elena Harsányi are also ideal, both singing with pure but warm tone. More controversial, though, is Klaus Mertens, who dominates the first part of the oratorio in the role of Pharoh. When this was recorded, Mertens was already in his 70s. Generally, his tone is stable and clear, but Telemann has a tendency to raise the tessitura when things get dramatic, and Mertens struggles at the top.

The second oratorio, Bequemliches Leben, gemächlicher Stand, takes as its theme the Good Sheppard of parable. Zell concocts a scenario in which the Good Shepherd must pass on his knowledge and values to a group of hirelings. So it is Mertens again as the Shepherd instructing the chorus, as his hired help. Borgioni is now a solo hireling, and there are also arias for Maas and Ludwig in the allegorical roles of Prayer and Consideration.  

Generally, Willens avoids the worst excesses of HIP orthodoxy. In both works, he strives for warmth from his modest forces, and tempos are never excessively fast. In the first oratorio, he employs emphatic accents and clear dynamic changes to carry the drama. That is less of a requirement in the more contemplative second work, but the generally relaxed atmosphere is punctuated with occasional fast movements, notably the chorus “Wir fressen das Fette.”

CPO makes no claim to the effect, but these appear to be first recordings. The music is classic Telemann, though possibly on a smaller scale than the billing suggests. The only objection that the performance raises is to the decaying tone of Klaus Mertens, but given that Alexander Willens, Rudolf Lutz, Masaaki Suzuki, and so many other luminaries of the Baroque world remain faithful to him, I’m willing to concede my view as a minority position.

This review appears in Fanfare issue 46:3.

Thursday, 29 September 2022

Dvořák Complete Symphonies Serebrier

DVOŘÁK Symphonies Nos. 1–9. Czech Suite. In Nature’s Realm. Legends. Scherzo capriccioso. Slavonic Dances, op. 46/1, 3, 6, 8; op. 72/2, 4, 7, 8

José Serebrier, cond; Bournemouth SO

WARNER 0190296238819 (7 CDs: 515:15)


The symphonies of Antonín Dvořák are always worth revisiting. That is the view at Warner Records anyway, as the recordings in this box set have been released multiple times over the last decade. The sessions, in Poole, Dorset, took place 2011–2014, and each of the seven discs was released separately over that period. A box set followed in 2015 (0825646132010). Here we have a reissue of that box, with a different cover and catalog number, but no other obvious changes. A trawl of streaming platforms shows different availability in different regions, but the individual discs have general distribution, whatever the status of the various boxes.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is on good form here, but there is no getting around the fact that it is clearly a regional ensemble. The orchestra has recorded much, and its best recordings show that the players always respond well to inspiring leadership. José Serebrier fits that category. He is a brisk, dynamic conductor, who brings a sense of propulsion to all of Dvořák’s many dances. But he is sometimes limited by the scope of the orchestra’s sound. The string tone lacks weight, and the violins sometimes struggle with tuning in the loud upper register passages, as in the development of the Eighth Symphony first movement. The brass could do with more heft as well. Serebrier draws punchy accents from the trumpets and trombones, but in more sustained passages the tone begins to wane. The recording quality is generally good, but some corners of the orchestra feel distant. The timpani could do with more presence, as could the piccolo. No further complaints about the woodwind section though, nor the horns, whose stentorian tone bolsters every climax.

And the cycle begins with that imposing horn sound, with the opening of the First Symphony. The greatest pleasure that a cycle of Dvořák symphonies affords is the chance to return to this frustratingly neglected work. Serebrier clearly agrees, and he puts his heart and soul into this account. The conductor’s own liner note (presumably abridged from those of the individual issues) relates how he went to great lengths to sort out textual issues in the finale. Apparently, there are some suspicious dissonances that seem accidental. Serebrier went back to previous recordings, to see what they did, and then came up with his own solution, which also draws on a recent scholarly edition of the score. Importantly, this is only the third ever complete recording of the symphony. Just as importantly, Serebrier’s survey brought him in contact with the superlative Kertész account, which he aims to match in the drama and subtly of his own reading. So those opening horns are imposing indeed, and the simple melody that follows, little more than an ascending scale, is shaped with tender care, as if every note matters.

It turns out that this is not typical of Serebrier’s Dvořák, and in the symphonies that follow he takes are more generalized approach. He clearly loves the folk dances that inspire so many of the main themes, and once a spirited melody is in full swing he rarely intervenes, leaving the music to spin its course. That suits some symphonies better than others. Nos. 2 and 3 are modest affairs, and Serebrier makes no real effort to elevate them. Nos. 4–6 come off best. Here, Dvořák finds the sweet spot between the naïve optimism of his folk sources and the Beethovenian symphonism that he aspires to. The Sixth comes off best, Serebrier conducting with a light touch and the orchestra responding with bright, spirited playing.

When we reach No. 7, we are in much-contested territory, and the final three symphonies must compete against much more than just the box sets. The Seventh is the least successful. It is a piece that needs more weight and more drama—more intervention all round from the podium. This account is light and breezy where it needs to be brooding and sullen. The Eighth comes off better. The low strings are gorgeous at the opening, and there is much fine orchestral playing throughout. Less so in the Ninth. Here we need incisive brass and a weighty string tone, both of which are lacking. But who would buy a box set for the Ninth anyway?

Speaking of boxes, one advantage of reissuing individual releases is that none of the symphonies are spread across more than one disc. However, the fillers are eccentrically chosen and placed. We get the complete Legends, op. 59, selections from the Slavonic Dances, opp. 46 and 72, the Czech Suite, In Nature’s Realm, and Scherzo capriccioso. Given the comprehensive approach to the symphonies, this is a curiously erratic sampling. But the focus on up-beat Bohemian-dance-type movements clearly reflects Serebrier’s interests, and his strengths. His approach of whipping up a dance movement and then letting the melody run its course is ideal in the Slavonic Dances. I just wish the discs were organized differently. You put on disc five, expecting to hear the quiet opening of the Seventh Symphony, or disc six, expecting to hear the quiet opening of the Ninth, but in both cases you are immediately blasted with a single Presto Slavonic Dance that has been prefixed for no obvious reason.

Mixed fortunes, then, for Serebrier’s Dvořák. If the box is available in your territory, it sells at super-budget price, currently £16 here in the UK. It is well worth that for its highlights, Symphonies 1, 5, and 6. Most of the other readings are attractive too, but are recommended mainly to those who like their Dvořák lively and light.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:3.




Friday, 15 July 2022

Matangi Outcast: Schnittke, Silvestrov, Shostakovich

Matangi Outcast: Schnittke, Silvestrov, Shostakovich

Schnittke String Quartet No. 3
Silvestrov String Quartet No. 1
Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8
MATANGI 04 (69:40)



This new album from the Dutch string quartet Matangi is titled Outcast. In the liner notes, they explain, “This is an ode to musical troublemakers and outsiders; three Soviet-Russian composers who wrote music that went dangerously against the tastes of the regime under which they lived. Described as ‘avant-garde’ or ‘western’, they stuck their necks out for their work....” That last statement, about sticking their necks out, is certainly true of all three composers: Schnittke, Silvestrov, and Shostakovich. But the argument is taken too far. To underline their dissidence, all three composers, and their music, are presented as explicitly political, which they aren’t. The idea of any of them being condemned as ‘western’ is also questionable. Later in the liner notes, we read of Schnittke that, “ the 1960s he traveled as much as possible to the West to learn about its various musical styles.” He didn’t. Schnittke lived in Vienna until 1948, but after that did not visit the West again until 1977. I would say that all three composers can equally be heard as Russian/Ukrainian. And, more the point, while they all exercised considerable artistic freedom, none of them did so simply as an act of defiance.

All that aside, the real reason for this program is to find a home for the group’s recording of Silvestrov’s First String Quartet (1974). Matangi has worked extensively with Silvestrov, who has even featured at their (Un)Heard Music Festival in Holland. Their performance of the quartet is stunning. The album was recorded in studio in Belgium, and the engineers have furnished the players with a warm, even ambiance. That proves ideal for Silvestrov’s airy, contemplative textures. The music is not explicitly religious. Rather, it is made up of fragments of motifs and melodic lines. You get the impression that coherent voice-leading is at the heart of the music, but that it has been dissipated and strung out. Matangi maintain just the right amount of propulsion and coherence to keep the focus, and that warm ambience also helps to hold the textures together.

The Silvestrov is framed by Schnittke’s Third String Quartet and Shostakovich’s Eighth. As a continuous sequence, this makes a lot of sense. Schnittke’s work is based on quotes from Lassus, Beethoven, and Shostakovich—his musical monogram that forms the basis of his Eighth Quartet. It begins with a sense of Beethovenian logic and architecture, but gradually becomes more disillusioned with its form, tending to a mediative statis in the last movement. This provides the ideal introduction for the Silvestrov. On its own terms, the Schnittke performance tends a little too far towards this meditative state, partly, no doubt, to fit the ethos of the album, but also because of the warm recorded sound. The Lassus quotation wins out against the Beethoven and Shostakovich, and Schnittke’s allusions to Renaissance polyphony come to the fore.

Similarly, the Shostakovich Quartet begins in the same meditative frame as the preceding Silvestrov, and the first movement is unusually spiritual. Then a jolt with the fast second movement, although again, the warm sound and beautifully resonant tone of the quartet present this music on an epic scale. It lacks bite, and the terse, self-doubting, introspective aspects of the music are barely felt.

But that seems to be the message from Matangi. Shostakovich is expressing “artistic freedom”; its all about him vs. the machine. At the very least, this is a Western perspective on these three composers. The Silvestrov is excellent, and that performance justifies the album’s concept. But in Schnittke and Shostakovich, I like to hear more of the inner psychological drama and less of the public face. 


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:2.

Casablancas L’Enigma di Lea

Josep Pons, cond; Allison Cook (Lea); José Antonio López (Ram); Sara Blanch (Primera dama de la frontera); Anaïs Masllorens (Segunda dama de la frontera); Marta Infante (Tercera dama de la frontera); Sonia de Munck (Millebocche); Felipe Bou (Milleocchi); Xavier Sabata (Dr Schicksal); Ch & O of Liceu Grand Theatre

NAXOS 0143 (Blu-ray: 122:00) Live: Barcelona 2/12–13/2019


L’Enigma di Lea is the first opera by Spanish composer Benet Casablancas (b. 1949). The libretto is by novelist Rafael Argullol, and the work was commissioned by the Liceu Opera in Barcelona. This video, a collaboration with Televisió de Catalunya, presents the first production, from 2019. Casablancas locates himself in the European Modernist tradition (he was a pupil of Fredierich Cerha), and the opera, too, draws on many of the narrative and character architypes that developed over the course of early 20th-century opera.

The plot begins in “a mythical age,” and with an act of mythical, or metaphysical, violence. Lea dances alone, but is struck down amid complex lighting effects. We are later told that she has been raped by a god, but that this has bestowed on her a secret wisdom that everyone she meets will desire. We then meet two guards, Milleocchi and Millebocche, who are to accompany her as she travels to the modern world. Then comes an encounter with the Three Ladies of the Frontier, warrior types, all of whom have mystical prophesies to deliver. Finally comes Ram, the love interest, although he is introduced in a death-like state, and the relationship is a gradual process of Lea bestowing on him her life force.

The second part takes place in the here and now, i.e., 2019. Lea is confined to a mental institution, overseen by Dr. Schicksal, previously a circus ringmaster but now a megalomaniac psychiatrist. Attention shifts very much to him, but when Ram reappears, the tension becomes between Schicksal and Lea over his destiny. The third part begins in the garden of the institution, but the setting becomes increasingly abstract. A love scene between Lea and Ram is played out in the most symbolist terms, and leads to gently transcendent conclusion. Ram gradually attains a living, human status. Milleocchi and Millebocche are vanquished. Finally, the Ladies of the Frontier reappear and announce that Lea’s actions have redeemed mankind. But the stage action gets increasingly abstract in the last half hour, and all these conclusions are merely suggested, a philosophical ending but also an anticlimax.

As should be clear from this outline, the narrative draws on many operatic plots, most notably, Götterdämmerung, Parsifal, Elektra, and Lulu. But the abstraction of the setting allows these diverse characters to interact without too many logic gaps. The cast is lead from the top by Allison Cook in the title role. Cook is a new music specialist and has a secure tone and commanding stage presence. She is a mezzo, and Casablancas makes good use of her lower register, which always projects clearly, even across the huge orchestra. Millebocche  and Milleocchi are performed by Sonia de Munck and Felipe Bou. So female and male—though their costumes and tessitura are gender ambiguous. The pair are a real menacing presence, something that Argullol emphasizes by making their appearances increasingly rare and brief. As Ram, José Antonio López seems to be made of stone in his early appearances, but gradually takes on human form as the opera goes on, an impressive make-up transformation. Casablancas is clearly intent on avoiding a traditional operatic relationship between Lea and Ram, casting the roles as mezzo and baritone. The most imposing characterization is the Dr. Schicksal of Xavier Sabata. The use of countertenor voice is so ubiquitous in modern opera as to risk cliché, but here it is ideal. The role is modelled on Klingsor, although with much more to sing. The idea of ringmaster-turned-psychiatrist sounds ridiculous, but Sabata pulls it off with his energetic and unpredictable behavior. He also has a huge voice, even in the upper range.

The staging (director Carme Portaceli, sets Paco Azorín) presents the action in a grimy industrial setting. The sets are simple metal grilles, onto which pastel lights are projected. A metal cage descends onto the stage to create the sense of moving from the mythical world to the real world, and then to show the transcendence of the lovers at the end.

Casablancas writes for a huge orchestra. There are occasional ecstatic outbursts from the pit, but on the whole the orchestral textures are reserved. In particular, the percussion is much more in the background than in much modern opera, although the bass drum is used to impressive effect. Instead, the flute and oboe soloists are the focus of the orchestral textures, subtle and songful accompaniments to the melodic lines. Conductor Josep Pons has an impressive background in modern opera and gives a dramatically charged but well-balanced reading here.

The sung languages are a bit of a mix. Casablancas instructs that the soloists sing in Italian, while the chorus sings in the vernacular of the audience, which in this case is Catalan. The difference between them is not great, but the subtitles are most welcome.

The camerawork for the video (director Miquel Àngel Raió) is ... creative. A camera glides on a boom across the orchestra pit, often zooming in on individual players from above. Lots of closeups of the soloists too. Dr. Schicksal has a camera attached to his wrist, which he points at his patients as he interrogates them. Presumably those closeups appear on a screen above the stage as well, but as cutaways in the video edit they really stand out. Sound and picture are good—TV quality—but not excellent. The sound is only in two channels, even on the Blu-ray. The bonus is a short series of interviews with composer, librettist, cast, and crew, each of their soundbites a small but valuable clue to what the opera is all about.


This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 46:2.