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Hector Berlioz

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Norman Lebrecht - Slipped disc

January 4

Vienna’s favourite maestro dies, aged 92

Norman Lebrecht - Slipped discWe regret to report the death of Georges Pretre, an elegant French conductor who was popular wherever he went – nowhere more so than Vienna, which adored him. He died this afternoon, at home in France. Raised in northern France, Georges was director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris from 1955 to 1959. He was a stalwart of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, 1959 to 1971, and was music director of the Paris Opéra for one season, 1970-71. He was principal conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker from 1986 to 1991. He was a regular at La Scala (see below). Mostly he freelanced around the world’s leading opera houses, giving fun and having it. He was the acme of French style in all that he did, with an infallible sense of rhythm. In terms of leaving a mark on music history, he gave the world premiere of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine. His farewell performance: From La Scala: Georges Pretre, one of the greatest conductors of our time, had a fifty-year relationship with La Scala. He made his debute in 1966 conducting a legendary production of Gounod’s Faust with Mirella Freni, Nicolai Gedda and Nicolai Ghiaurov, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault. Two years later he led Turandot directed by Margherita Wallmann, and, a few days later, Die Walküre with Régine Crespin and James King. In 1969, Roméo et Juliette by Berlioz with Liliana Cosi in the choreography of George Skibine, in 1970 Sanson et Dalila in Saint-Saëns with Shirley Verrett and Pier Miranda Ferraro in 1972 with Carmen Fiorenza Cossotto, in 1973 and 1977 Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy directed by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1975 in Puccini’s La bohème, directed by Franco Zeffirelli with Luciano Pavarotti and Ileana Cotrubaş, in 1976 Massenet’s Werther with Alfredo Kraus and Elena Obraztsova, Madama Butterfly in 1978 and immediately after Manon Lescaut by Puccini with Sylvia Sass and Plácido Domingo in a direction of Piero Faggioni. In 1978 Ravel L’enfant et les sortileges and L’heure espagnole; back in 1981 for Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, directed by Zeffirelli with Domingo and Obraztsova and in 1982 for Les Troyens by Berlioz in the direction of Luca Ronconi. The last operatic commitments of Prêtre at La Scala were Turandot directed by Keita Asari in 2001 and Pelleas et Melisande directed by Pierre Médecin, but he continued to give countless concerts with the orchestra. His last, triumphant concert took place on 22 February 2016. Georges Pretre was due to return to the podium for the Symphonic Season of the Teatro alla Scala on 13, 15 and 17 March 2017.

Royal Opera House

January 11

Girls being boys being girls: a short history of opera’s trouser roles

Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs and Alice Coote as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore The trouser (or breeches) role – a young male character sung by a woman – has been part of opera since its early days. And the role type has flourished since, in a variety of contexts. In the 18th century, the bulk of heroic male roles were written for soprano or alto castratos – but the trouser role was never just a ‘castrato substitute’: Handel ’s Radamisto and his heroic adolescent Sesto in Giulio Cesare are the most famous examples. Towards the end of the century, Mozart became probably the first composer to recognize the trouser role’s erotic potential, with Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro . His adolescent passion for Countess Almaviva is made all the more risqué by the fact that the lovesick page is sung by a woman, and Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte have additional fun when Cherubino dresses up as a serving maid. As castratos became a dying breed in the early 19th century, mezzo-sopranos increasingly took on Italian opera’s heroic lead male roles. Rossini wrote several principal breeches roles, including the title role of Tancredi and the soldier Arsace in Semiramide . Donizetti also created a few, although he tended to demote his trouser roles from heroes to sidekicks – as with Maffeo Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia , or Smeton in Anna Bolena . The tradition reached its culmination in 1830 with Bellini ’s Romeo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi ; the virtuoso writing for mezzo-soprano perfectly expresses the hero’s youthful ardour and impetuosity. Over in France, 19th-century grand and comic opera alike saw an explosion of trouser roles: chiefly pages and lovesick adolescents. Although they were rarely in the first rank of dramatic importance, they were usually given beautiful arias, such as Ascanio’s ‘Mais qu’ai-je donc?’ in Berlioz ’s Benvenuto Cellini or Siébel’s ‘Faites-lui mes aveux’ in Gounod ’s Faust . The page-boy became such a popular character type that composers even added them to scenarios, as with the invented Stéphano in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette , with his lovely aria ‘Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?’. In French comic opera, a girl could even play the hero on occasion, as with the title role of Massenet ’s Chérubin , or Prince Charmant in Massenet’s Cendrillon (a nod to pantomime’s Principal Boy tradition ). In 19th-century German opera, trouser roles were usually limited to children and supernatural beings, such as Puck in Weber ’s Oberon . Two notable exceptions were the young warrior Adriano in Wagner ’s Rienzi , a virtuoso role modelled on Bellini’s Romeo, and the flamboyant Prince Orlofsky in Johann Strauss ’s Die Fledermaus . But the the trouser role really came into his own in Germany from 1890 to 1930, with a number of feisty boy characters including Humperdinck ’s Hänsel and the Schoolboy in Berg ’s Lulu . Meanwhile in the former Czechoslovakia Janáček created one of the most poignant breeches roles in his 1930 opera From the House of the Dead: the boy prisoner Aljeja, described by the composer as ‘such a tender, dear person’. But before this, in 1911, came Octavian in Richard Strauss ’s Der Rosenkavalier , perhaps the greatest trouser role of all. With this young nobleman, in love with an older woman, Strauss fully exploits the breeches role’s capacity to convey youth through the high female voice, and also its slightly risqué sensuality, particularly in the opening scene with Octavian and the Marschallin in bed. He playfully draws attention to the trouser role’s inherent artificiality by having Octavian dress up as a girl. And he provides one of the most satisfying portrayals of late-adolescent love through Octavian’s stunning duets with the Marschallin and Sophie, and the sublime trio for all three characters in Act III. Small wonder that in his next opera Strauss insisted on writing the ardent male Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos for mezzo-soprano. His breeches roles are a crowning glory of a distinguished tradition. Der Rosenkavalier runs until 24 January 2017. Tickets are still available. The production is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, New York , Teatro Regio, Turin , and Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires , and is given with generous philanthropic support from the Monument Trust, Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Simon and Virginia Robertson, Susan and John Singer, the Friends of Covent Garden and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund .




Classical iconoclast

December 28

Feral Varèse Arcana Andris Nelsons Berlioz Debussy

Edgard Varèse Arcana with Andris Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker, from the Musikfest Berlin, available til 31/12 in the Digital Concert Hall.  Grab the chance !  Arcana (1925-7)is scored for massive forces-   roughly 120 players altogether,  68 strings, 20 woodwinds, 20 brass and a phalanx of percussionists playing 40 different instruments from timpani to castanets.  Every performance is a feat of logistics, so it doesn't get done as often as it should be.  It's also extremely visual : watching is very much part of the experience.  It's not every day you see rows of trumpets and trombones, some muted, some not,playing together, or 8 horns raised heavenwards. Arcana is big, but its bigness springs from its musical function. Arcana proceeds like a gigantic beast, its component parts articulated to move in stately formation, groups of instruments impacting on each other in constantly varying combinations. I've never quite been sure what Varèse  meant by its title, but I've often imagined it as a mythical creature brought to life by arcane spells and incantations.  Compared to Varèse's more esoteric innovations,   most for smaller ensembles,  Arcana is relatively easy to follow since it's constructed like a series of variations with interlocking inner cells and permutations thereof.  Although it isn't by any means electronic, it functions like a machine, where different sections operate in parallel and together towards a common purpose.  Very much the Zeitgeist of the 1920's of Futurism and things to come.  Andris Nelson's approach is deliberately unhurried, allowing the monster to waken and walk at its own pace without being pushed. I get a kick from speedier tempi but Nelsons reveals the textures and colours.  Watch him neat the inaudible passages bar by bar showing how silence is part of the structure.  Instinctively, Nelsons half-crouched, like a feral animal, listening to the world around him before making a move. This was intuitive and almost certainly unconscious,  but definitely in tune with the spirit of Arcana and also with the Debussy Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune which preceded it. Consider the connections between the two pieces, and their elusive physicality.  Someone could do Arcana as ballet, though they'd ne3ed a big budget.  It would certainly lend itself to visual patterns and recurring images. Nelsons' Berlioz Symphonie fantastique op 14, was thus coloured by being heard in conjunction with Varèse and Debussy. Symphonie fantastique is so dramatic and that lesser conductors cheat by playing up the dramatic kitsch.  We've all heard this piece so often that it's easy to coast along.  Not Nelsons. ho instead  emphasizes the intelligence in the orchestration.  Berlioz's genius lay in the way he could use instruments to create myriad textures and colours. He studied instruments for their own sake, and was open to new, innovative sounds like that of the saxophone.  Not really all that far from Varèse and his experiments with klaxons and ondes martenot.  Yet again, Nelsons emphasized the underlying musical logic and the finesse with which Berlioz built up his palette.  The Berliner Philharmoniker are so good that they can do refinement with natural, unforced élan.  Like a composer using the tools available to him, Nelsons knows this orchestra well enough to inspire them so they play as if the work were fresh and vivid. Listen out specially for the quiet passages, like in the third movement, where the shepherd  listens to the gentle rustling of leaves and contemplates a moment of solitude. Gradually more complex feelings rush in, but to understand, we must listen attentively, picking up every nuance.  Shepherds, like animals in nature, listening acutely to the sounds around them : the faun again, the "creature" in Arcana  ?  Noisiness dulls the senses.  The Dream of the Night of the Sabbath was vivid because our minds had been cleared of detritus.  Listen to those crazed winds ! Some audiences think music exists to serve the listener, and like conductors who deliver in that way. True artists, though, are more likely to think that they (and their audiences) exist to serve the music. Nelsons and the Berliner Philharmoniker belong in the latter category, most definitely. 

Royal Opera House

December 19

10 of the most challenging mezzo-soprano roles

Elena Maximova in Carmen © 2015 ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore Who says mezzo-sopranos have to play second fiddle? There are plenty of operas where composers say ‘soprano, schmoprano’, and give a mezzo the best tunes. In tribute to this amazing voice type, we’ve picked out some of our favourites: Léonor – Donizetti ’s La Favorite Léonor is a ‘fallen woman’, in love with an impetuous young man – a groundbreaking opera heroine who foreshadows Violetta in La traviata . Donizetti wrote Léonor for the French mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz , who had a wide-ranging voice, and one of great beauty if the Act III aria ‘O mon Fernand’ is anything to go by. Azucena – Verdi ’s Il trovatore Verdi made it clear that Azucena, a mezzo-soprano, was Il trovatore’s most important female character: ‘the principal role, finer and more dramatic than the other’. He gives her some of the most thrilling episodes in this blistering opera, including Part II’s show-stealing ‘Stride la vampa!’. Didon – Berlioz ’s Les Troyens Berlioz wrote five wonderful dramatic mezzo-soprano roles, of which Didon is perhaps the greatest. The warm, rich timbre of the mezzo voice conveys the Queen of Carthage’s noble dignity, which she retains even during her closing suicide scene. In her Act IV love duet with Enée, ‘Nuit d’ivresse’, his tenor voice rises above hers to deliciously sensual effect. Eboli – Verdi’s Don Carlo Eboli is a passionate and sensual woman, who enters with the spectacular ‘Veil Song’ in Act II scene 2. She is capable of terrifying vindictiveness, as we see when Don Carlo rejects her love in Act III scene 1. However, Verdi also shows that she’s a woman with great capacities for love and remorse, highlighted in her magnificent Act IV scene 1 aria ‘O don fatale’. Carmen – Bizet ’s Carmen Carmen’s sensuality, joie de vivre and independent spirit not only make her opera’s greatest femme fatale (with Saint-Saëns ’s mezzo anti-heroine Dalila a close second) but also something of a feminist heroine. This is a show-stealing role – no wonder so many sopranos have tried to take it over. Charlotte – Massenet ’s Werther The mellow timbre of the mezzo-soprano voice perfectly evokes the maternal gentleness of Charlotte, a substitute mother to her younger siblings. But Massenet also uses the mezzo-soprano’s wide range to show Charlotte’s repressed romantic passion in her Act III ‘Letter scene’, one of the most emotionally charged of operatic monologues. Lyubasha – Rimsky-Korsakov ’s The Tsar’s Bride Rimsky-Korsakov gives the passionate Lyubasha some of the opera’s best music, starting with her melancholy Act I aria, an exquisite unaccompanied folksong. Her desperate plea for her lover Grigory not to abandon her is so beautiful and heartfelt that it’s impossible not to feel compassion for Lyubasha – even after she commits a dreadful crime later in the opera. Princesse de Bouillon – Cilea ’s Adriana Lecouvreur A rare example of a leading mezzo role in fin-de-siècle Italian opera, the vengeful Princesse de Bouillon is another of opera’s great anti-heroines. She’s far more than a one-dimensional villainess though: her fiery Act II aria ‘Acerba volutta’ testifies to her intense devotion to her former lover Maurizio, as well as to her volatile, unstable temperament. Countess Geschwitz – Berg ’s Lulu Countess Geschwitz, the first lesbian to figure in an opera, is the most sympathetic and humane character in Lulu. Berg highlights her noble nature through some ravishing music, particularly in the final bars of the opera, as Geschwitz soars to the highest notes in the mezzo-soprano range in her dying elegy to Lulu. Ariadne – Birtwistle ’s The Minotaur Birtwistle exploits the full potential of the mezzo-soprano voice with this complex heroine. He conveys Ariadne’s fatalism through dark, chesty low notes, and illustrates her rage and frustration through thrilling forays into the high register. Nor does he forget the mezzo-soprano voice’s sensual qualities, highlighted in Ariadne’s solo scene where her voice interweaves with a jazzy alto saxophone melody. Il trovatore runs until 9 February 2017. Tickets are still available. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 31 January 2017. Find your nearest cinema . The production is a co-production with Frankfurt Opera .



Classical iconoclast

December 1

Death or Liberty ? Gossec Grande Messe des Morts

François-Xavier Roth conducted François Joseph Gossec's Grande Messe des morts with Les Siècles and the Weiner Singakademie last week min Vienna, now broadcast on BBC Radio 3. . Since Roth conducted an astonishing Berlioz Grand Messe des morts at the Royal Albert Hal, London,two weeks ago (please read my review here), this is a good opportunity to hear both Requiems by the same conductor, whose expertise in French repertoire is unequalled, as fluent in early music as he is in the contemporary avant garde, Roth's insights are always refreshing. Gossec (1734-1829), a protege of Rameau, was, in his own way as innovative as Rameau was in his own time, as as Berlioz was to become in the future.  His Grande Messe, written in 1761,is a forward-facing, youthful work which, upon publication twenty years later caught the spirit of a France on the verge of revolutionary change.  It's inspired bynthe spirit of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, all of whom were his contemporaries. Gossec's Grand Messe begins with assertive, almost explosive chords, taken up by a livelier melody on pipes and strings, Berlioz's Grand Messe, with its mysterious, searching lines seems almost "modern" in a kind of 20th century ambiguity. Yet Gossec isn't writing faux pastoral.  The confident airs give way to a sophisticated Introitus in three parts, grave, allegro and largo, where voices weave intricate patterns, individual voices kept clear and bright.  The mood is vibrant.  The female soloists dominate (in Vienna, Chantal Santon-Jeffry and Anaik More).  Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly at all, I kept thinking of Marianne , her breasts exposed, leading the nation to Liberty.  Peasant girl as antithesis to King and the Virgin Mary. Breaking the link between Church and State was a founding principle of the Republic. No wonder Gossec's Grande Messe captured the public mood. The deceased here will not die will be remembered in glory. "Requiem aeternum " and "et lux perpetua" aren't mere worrds, but inspire the two graduale that follow : uplifting choral pieces that move briskly. Berlioz integrates choir and orchestra with greater complexity but Gossec has brio.  While Berlioz's Dies Irae is hushed and sombre, Gosec;s Dies Irae is angular, with a distinctive motif of sharply accentuated rhythms. His Tuba mirium blasts with the baleful force of massed trumpets, the "tuba" here referring to the Trumpets which will sound at the end of time, waking the dead.  Again, Gossec uses a solo voice, not a choir.  Because Gossec's Grande Messe evolves over no less than 24 parts, each sequence is relative short, and highly varied Some sections are for solo voice and orchestra, others for combined soloists and orchestra, others for choir and orchestra.  This diversity generates momentum and energy, which comes naturally to Roth and a period ensemble Les Siècles. No surprise that Gossec's Grande Messe is their speciality. They've been doing it for some time.The photo above comes from their performance in October 2013 at the Chapelle Royale in Paris, which was broadcast on French TV and radio. Rumour has it that it will be released on CD.  Definitely a must-buy since that performance is much more vivacious and spirited than the Vienna version.  After the Amen, a short break before the Vado et non revertar, an unusual interjection into a Mass, coming as it does from the pre Christian Book of Job, though it links to the idea of resurrection. The staccato patterns heard earlier (as in the Dies Irae), but with the Pie Jesu, the dead are granted rest.  Everyone's singing together again, and the final Requiem Aeternum draws everything together.  Berlioz's Grande Messe des morts  is grander in every way, reflecting a new era when Europe was on the cusp of a new urbanized, industrial era. Gossec's not too bothered about complex orchestration and large scale forces so much as freedom of spirit.  Besides,mhis Grande Mess des morts harks back to the period that made modernity possible in the first place. BTW Gossec was not Belgian. Belgium didn't exist as an independent monarchy before 1830.

Hector Berlioz
(1803 – 1869)

Hector Berlioz (December 11, 1803 – March 8, 1869) was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie fantastique and Grande messe des morts (Requiem). Berlioz made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation. He specified huge orchestral forces for some of his works; as a conductor, he performed several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. He also composed around 50 songs. His influence was critical for the further development of Romanticism, especially in composers like Richard Wagner, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and many others.



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