Zandonai’s operas: too beautiful to ever forget

Riccardo Zandonai was once considered Puccini’s successor. He wrote about thirteen operas, of which actually only Conchita (1911), Francesca da Rimini (1914) and Giulietta e Romeo (1921) were ever really successful. Nowadays, they are seldom performed and the average opera lover gets no further than Francesca da Rimini. A pity, because his operas are a pure pleasure to listen to.

Francesca da Rimini

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini 1855 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the Art Fund 1916 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03056

Francesca da Polenta (1255 -1285), better known as Francesca da Rimini was a contemporary of Dante Alighieri, who “granted” her a place in his ‘ La Divina Commedia’, but in the fifth circle. Sad, because she did not deserve that and she must surely get a pardon.

The story: to seal the peace between the houses of da Polenta and Malatesta, Francesca must marry the eldest of the Malatesta brothers, Giovanni (Gianciotto). However, he is so hideous that the chances of her saying “no” are extremely high. To fool her, she is introduced to his younger brother, Paolo il Bello. Francesca immediately falls for the beautiful Paolo and
he too feels an all-consuming love at first sight.

The reality is gruesome: Francesca wakes up as Gianciotto’s wife. And to complicate matters further, the youngest of the Malatesta brothers, Maletestino the one-eyed, also falls in love with her.

Francesca rejects him, after which he swears revenge. He does not have  to wait long: he discovers that Francesca and Paolo are lovers, reveals this to Gianciotto, after which both lovers are killed.

Romance at its finest, no wonder it was an inspiration for many a painter and tone poet, but literature was not left behind either. Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863 – 1938) wrote a beautiful play about it (a fun fact: the leading role was played by none other than Eleonore Duse, perhaps the greatest Italian actress ever), which was adapted for an opera by Riccardo Zandonai in 1914.

Zandonai was a pupil of Mascagni and a true verismo adept, but at the same time he was also a Wagnerian. He was also a great admirer of Debussy and Strauss, and you can hear all this in his music. The opera is sultry, sensual, but also extraordinarily lyrical.

The leading role requires not only a big, dramatic voice with plenty of lyricism (I call Francesca Isolde’s little sister), but also the ability to shape the needed all-consuming passion. The greatest Francesca’s were therefore the singers who dared to go beyond “just” singing: Magda Olivero, Raina Kabaivanska, Renata Scotto and Nelly Miriciou.

On 31 January 2011 Francesca da Rimini was performed for the first time in Paris, at the Opéra Bastille. The superb cast led by Svetla Vassileva and Roberto Alagna certainly lived up to the high expectations. Director Giancarlo del Monaco, though, had to put up with a deluge of boos.

Ontmoetingscène van Francesca (Svetla Vassileva) en Paolo (Roberto Alagna). Foto: Mirco Maglioca/Opéra National de Paris

Whether Svetla Vassileva achieves real greatness only time will tell, but at the premiere she was certainly impressive. A beautiful, slender lady with a traditionally lyrical voice with which she could reach all corners even in that immense opera house.

Roberto Alagna was a near-perfect Paolo. He has an ideal timbre for the role and as his voice has grown considerably over the years, he knows how to handle the fiercest passages. In the more lyrical moments I found him less convincing and at times he sounded downright tired, especially in the high notes. Not all notes were pure either, and at times he
seemed to overhype himself. Still, he was unquestionably credible.

George Gagnidze (Gianciottto) disappointed me. His voice is undeniably big and impressive, but woolly. And I found little substance in what he sang.

William Joyner, on the other hand, was a Malatestino out of thousands. Often the role is played by a good ‘comprimiario’, well – here a would-be great was in the starting blocks!

Beautiful also was Samaritana (Louise Callinan) and the small role of Smaragdi was beautifully performed by Cornelia Onciuiu.

Giancarlo del Monaco’s direction was actually exactly what you could expect: realistic through and through, which in itself has nothing wrong with it at all. But in his attempt to recreate d’Annunzio’s world, he created a mishmash of the Middle Ages and Art Deco.

Kamer in  ‘Il Vittoriale degli Italiani’, villa van d’Annunzio. Foto courtasy Italy Magazine

The Malatesta’s palace was a literal recreation of “Il Vittoriale degli Italiani”, the poet’s last residence, and the effigy of his bald head “adorned” the front screen.

The ladies wore dresses that seemed straight out of the paintings of Klimmt or the Pre-Raphaelites and the gentlemen were wearing something of a uniform. Except Paolo, that is. In accordance with the surviving paintings, he wore a long blue robe and he went into the battles with bow and arrow.

What I also (or perhaps most?) blame the director for is that he borrowed” from his colleague Piero Faggioni; he made a weak copy really. Poor del Monaco was met with a huge “boo” shout, so that even the walls of La Bastille were shaking. He took it very well. He knelt,raised   hands to heaven and threw kissing hands to the audience. Cute.

The production is on You Tube:

And no one should miss Francesca da Rimini from the MET, with Renata Svotto and Plácido Domingo. When music says more then thousands words:

Giulietta e Romeo

The only complete recording of Giulietta e Romeo (GOP 66352) known to me was made in 1955 in Milan. The leading roles were sung by Annamaria Rovere, a fine soprano with a voice typical for the time, and Angelo Lo Forese, who I find slightly irritating. Because of the opera itself, but also because of the phenomenal Renato Capecchi as Tebaldo, an absolute must for any opera lover.

An aria from the opera is also on Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘Verismo’  CD:

IL Bacio

Il Bacio (GOP 66351) had its very first performance in 1954 in Milan (Zandonai had died in 1944, leaving the opera unfinished). Fortunately for us, the performance was recorded by RAI and put on CD. The publisher apologises for the absence of the libretto, but there is no synopsis either, so one can only guess at the opera’s content. No problem, the music is captivating enough, and it is beautifully sung by, among others, Lina Pagliughi in the role of Mirta.

Schreker’s ‘Die Gezeichneten’: discography

Alviano: photo from the premiere in Frankfurt 1918 via Green Integer Blog

The idea came from Zemlinsky. He wanted to compose an opera about an ugly man – his obsession – and commissioned the libretto from Schreker. After finishing his work, it was hard for Schreker to give up his text. Fortunately, Zemlinsky abandoned the opera so Schreker started to compose himself.

Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Schreker in Prague 1912

Like Der Ferne Klang, perhaps his best-known work, Die Gezeichneten also deals with the search for unattainable ideals. Alviano, a deformed rich nobleman from Genoa, dreams of beauty and perfection. On an island he has ‘Elysium’ built, a place where he hopes to realize his ideals. What he doesn’t know is that the noblemen abuse his island: they are engaged in orgies, rapes and even murders.

The title of the opera is ambiguous. Not only are the main characters ‘marked’ (Alviano by his monstrous appearance and Carlotta by a deadly illness), Carlotta also makes a drawing of Alviano, in which she tries to capture his soul.


This beautiful opera, with its thousands of colours and sensual sounds (just listen to the overture, goosebumps!), is being staged more and more nowadays. In 1990 it was performed at the Saturday Matinee, with an ugly singing but very involved and therefore very vulnerable William Cochran as Alviano and a phenomenal Marilyn Schmiege as Carlotta (Marco Polo 8.223328-330).


In 1994, Decca (4444422) recorded Die Gezeichneten in the ‘Entartete Musik’ series. I am not particularly enamoured with either the orchestra or the soloists, but, like Marco Polo, it is complete.


I am not very enthousiastic about Helmut Krebs in the lead role of Alviano: while his timbre is beautiful, his height is pinched. The roles of Carlotta and the sadistic seducer Tamare are perfectly cast by married couple Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart.

American baritone Stewart was a highly celebrated Wagner singer at the time, famous for his Wotans and his various interpretations of Amfortas. Lear was often compared to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, I myself find her way of singing more natural and pleasant. Her beautiful appearance made her an ideal Carlotta, it is a pity that we have no footage of it.

Evelyn Lear (Carlotta) and Helmut Krebs (Alviano), scene from the second act:

However, it is the wonderful bass Franz Cras who dominates the recording in his role of Duke Adorno.
Initially the sound is on the poor side, but it seems to get better as the opera progresses. Of course, it could also be that you get used to it.

I don’t really like the Norddeutsche Rundfunk under Winfried Zillig. I miss the sensuality, but it could also be down to the recording. The score is, as was usual at the time, considerably shortened. A pity, but it is nevertheless undoubtedly an extremely important release! (Walhall WLCD 0376)

FRANZ SCHREKER 1928 (extracts)

A box set of three CDs (Symposium 1271/1272/1273) on which Schreker can be admired as the conductor of his own works, among others, also includes a few excerpts from Die Gezeichneten, recorded in 1928, with his wife Maria in the role of Carlotta.


In 2005, a widely acclaimed production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff was recorded live in Salzburg and released on DVD (EuroArts 2055298). Personally, I am not unreservedly enthusiastic about it, although I must admit that it is all very spectacular and very excitingly staged.

To begin with, I find the setting (the reclining body of a dead woman, the head separated from the torso, with everybody walking all over her remains) too emphatic and laden with cheap and unnecessary symbolism. I also find the final scene to be in bad taste: nowadays you need a lot more than kidnapped young virgins to shock, so Lehnhoff lets them be emphatically young.

These virgins, including Ginevra Scotti, are no more than 10 years old, so it may really be called paedophilia. Yes, that does indeed come across as shocking, but was it necessary? I’m not so sure about that.

But compared to Kušej’s horribly flat staging at De Nederlandse Opera (thankfully not recorded, but at the same time a shame because of Gabriel Sadè’s wonderfully good leading role), Lehnhoff is of course a hero.

So buy Lehnhoff anyway, because there is undeniably much to enjoy. First, there is the music itself, beautifully and very erotically played by the Berlin Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester under the direction of Kent Nagano. The visuals are beautiful, the colours (with predominantly deep blue) are lovely and the singers/actors, styled after contemporary stars like Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise, are beautiful – after all, everything here is about outer beauty, and Lehnhoff and his team manage to highlight that very clearly.

Robert Brubakker is an endearing Alviano, and although I don’t quite understand why he is put in female clothes at the beginning – he is impressive. Anne Schwanewilms is a beautiful, cool Carlotta, and Michael Volle convinces as the virile Count Tamare.

Extract from the first act:

And the whole opera:

Photos: © Bernd Uhlig  

From Tragédiennes to Visions. Véronique Gens, a mini portrait

In 1999, Véronique Gens was named singer of the year by the French ‘Victoires de la Musique’, but her career began 13 years earlier, when she was introduced to William Christie.

Her voice was not yet trained and that was exactly what he was looking for. In 1986, she made her debut as a member of his famous baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants. Very quickly she became an established singer of baroque music and she worked with the biggest names in the circuit: Marc Minkowski, Philippe Herreweghe, René Jacobs, Christophe Rousset and Jean-Claude Malgoire.

Gens sings ´Ogni vento´ from Hàndel’s Agrippina, conducted by Malgoire

It was Malgoire who gave her her first Mozart roles: Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro) and Vitellia (La Clemenza di Tito), but if anyone had predicted to her 20 years ago that she would one day sing the Contessa from Le Nozze or Elvira (Don Giovanni), she would surely not have believed it.

Véronique Gens as Donna Elvira in Barcelona:

She always wanted to sing, but her family of almost exclusively doctors and pharmacists didn’t like it. No steady income, no pension… So she studied English in her hometown Orléans, and then at the Sorbonne.

Since then, she has made hundreds of recordings – many of them award-winning – and her repertoire is constantly expanding: after Mozart came Berlioz – she sang the role of Marie in L’enfance du Christ, for instance – and for her recording of Les Nuits d’été she was chosen as the ´Editor’s Choice´ by English Gramophone.

Her CD titled Nuit d’étoiles with songs by Fauré, Poulenc and Debussy was also very enthusiastically received everywhere.


For Virgin, she had embarked on a voyage of discovery through the mostly unknown treasures of the French Baroque in 2006, and the result is quite something.

Accompanied by the Ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset, she recorded arias from the operas of Lully, Campra, Rameau, Leclair, de Mondonville, Royer and Gluck. The so-called “tragédie-lyrique” was inspired by the great classical plays, in which the tragic element was considered the most important. It also contained long dramatic scenes, which allowed the divas of the time to display the whole range of emotions.

It fits her all like a glove. She takes us on a journey of discovery, in which a lot of forgotten gems provide immense pleasure. But however wonderful they all are, she reaches the absolute climax in ‘Dieux puissants que j’atteste…’, Clytamnestra’s poignant cry of the heart for her daughter, from Gluck’s Iphigénie and Aulide.

There she soars with the speed of a rollercoaster to enormous heights, leaving the listener gasping and palpitating. Brava.

Arias from early French operas by Lully, Campra, Rameau, Mondonville, Leclair, Royer, Gluck; Les Talens Lyriques conducted by Christophe Rousset. Virgin 346.762


For her album Néère, named after the title of Reynaldo Hahn’s opening song, Veronique Gens has made a more than brilliant selection of the most beautiful songs by Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc and Ernest Chausson.

They cannot be called cheerful: they all exude a very wistful and melancholic atmosphere and are – how could it be otherwise when the French talk about ‘amour’? –  all ‘tristesse’.

The beautiful mélodies fit Gens’s dark-toned and slightly-veiled voice with its sensual undertones like a velvet glove.


Nothing but praise too for the pianist. Susan Manoff plays more than sublime and in her accompaniment she sounds like Gens’ twin sister: the perfection with which she manages to transpose the rich colours so present in the singer’s voice (and there are many!) to the keys is truly unimaginable.

Rare beauty.

Néère; Songs by Reynaldo Hahn, Henri Duparc and Ernest Chausson, Alpha 215


No one can possibly ignore this CD. Palazetto Bru Zane is long overdue for a fame that transcends all countries and borders! Just look at their programming and all their releases! They are so very special!

Not only is their repertoire extremely rare and extraordinarily fascinating, their releases are done to perfection. Something that deserves not just kudos but the highest awards.

Their latest project, Visions, also exceeds all expectations and desires. At least mine. The CD is bursting with unknown arias from unknown operas and oratorios by largely lesser-known and/or forgotten composers. All the pieces collected here have the motto ‘religious visions’ and exude an atmosphere bordering on sanctuary and martyrdom but served up with the extremely grand gesture that only opera can offer.

Trailer of the recording:

Véronique Gens sings the arias with a great élan and an enormous empathy. Her delivery is dramatic, sometimes even a tad too much. That the arias call for a healthy dose of hysteria is rather obvious, but a little more devotion and piety would have made the result even better, even more impressive.

There is no point in speculating what a singer like Montserrat Caballé could have done with all this material: first, she has never sung it (apart from Massenet’s La Vierge) to my knowledge, and second, singers of her calibre really don’t exist anymore.

Montserrat Caballé sings ‘Rêve infini, divine ecstasy’ from Massenet’s La Vierge:

In this context, Véronique Gens is more than up to the task. Not only because of her exemplary diction and intelligibility, but also because her voice has developed into a true ‘Falcon soprano’ and has reached a level that more than lends itself to this repertoire.


Visions; Arias from the operas by Alfred Bruneau, César Franck, Louis Niedermeyer, Benjamin Godard, Félicien David, Henry Février, Camille Saint-Saëns, Jules Massenet, Frometal Halévy, Georges Bizet; Munich Radio Orchestra conducted by Hervé Niquet; Alpha 279

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: more than just a composer of guitar works

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (Florence, 3 April 1895 – Beverly Hills, 16 March 1968) was born into a Jewish family of Sephardic descent (Jews expelled from Spain in 1492). He was extraordinarily creative, to his credit he worked on all sorts of things: piano works, concertos, operas…. His compositions were played by the great: Walter Gieseking, Gregor Piatigorsky, Jascha Heifetz, Casella.

Heifetz plays Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s second violin concerto: ‘I Propheti’. Recording from 1954:

Today, we know him mainly for his guitar works, nearly a hundred in all, mostly written for Andres Segovia.
Segovia plays the Guitar Concerto No.1 in D major, Op. 99; live recording from 1939:

In the beginning of the 1930s the composer began to explore his “Jewish Roots”, which was intensified by the rising of fascism and the racial laws. His music was not performed anymore. Helped by Arturo Toscanini, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and his family were able to leave Italy just before the beginning of World War 2.

Like most Jewish composers who fled Europe, Castelnuovo-Tedesco ended up in Hollywood. Where, thanks to Jascha Heifetz, he was appointed composer of film music by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

At Rita Hayworth’s special request, he composed music for the film The Loves of Carmen starring Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Below is the dance scene from the film:

During this time, Castelnuovo-Tedesco also composed new operas and vocal works inspired by American poetry, Jewish liturgy and the Bible: America offered him opportunities to deepen and develop his Italian musical heritage and his Jewish spirituality. He dreamed of hearing his Sacred Service “once in the synagogues of Florence”. It was premiered in 1950, at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue.

Dating from 1956, the opera Il Mercante di Venezia after Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a great Shakespeare lover) was performed at Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1961. Toscanini conducted and the leading roles were sung by Renato Capecchi (Shylock) and Rosanna Carteri (Portia).

In 1966, he composed The Divan of Moses Ibn Ezra. It is a setting of nineteen poems by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob ibn Ezra, also known as Ha-SallaḠ(‘writer of penitential prayers’).

An illustration of Ibn Ezra (centre) using an astrolabe

Born in Granada around 1055 – 1060, Ibn Ezra died after 1138 and is considered one of Spain’s greatest poets. He also had a huge influence on Arabic literature. Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed the ‘Divan’ (meaning; a collection of poems) to the modern English translation.

Roberta Alexander sings The Divan of Moses Ibn Ezra

Channa Malkin and Izhar Elias in ‘Fate has blocked the way’:

The composer wrote his Cello Concerto for Gregor Piatigorsky, the premiere took place in 1935, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic. And that was it. Since then, the concerto was totally forgotten for all of eighty years. Until Raphael Wallfisch took it on.

Raphael Wallfisch plays the Allegro Moderato from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cello Concerto

After World War II, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, like several Jewish composers who were forced to flee and seek refuge in Hollywood, was accused of conservatism and sentimentality. That he was inspired by Spanish folklore in many of his works, was not appreciated either.

Song of Songs

In 2022, in celebration of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s birthday on 3 April his official website presented a long-buried treasure: a recording of the world-premiere of The Song of Songs, which took place in Los Angeles on 7 August 1963

More information:


“In my life I have written many melodies for voice and published 150 of them (many others remaining unpublished) on texts in all the languages I know: Italian, French, English, German, Spanish and Latin. My ambition and, indeed, my deep motivation has always been to unite my music with poetic texts that stimulated my interests and feelings, to express its lyricism.”

In 2019, his biography was filmed in the movie Maestro. Below is the trailer:

Official website of Mario Castelnuovo -Tedesco:



Franz Schreker deserves Eternal Life in The Distant Perfect Sound


Sight & Sound Experience of Gustav Klimt – Atelier des lumières Paris

On the threshold of the twentieth century, many artists were guided in their work by the desire – and the search – for a perfect world. It had to do with the spirit of the times, among other things, and it influenced many painters, writers, poets and composers in their work. But with no other artist it was as prominent as with Franz Schreker (1878-1934). The search for ‘the’ sound dominated his entire life, he was fascinated and obsessed with it. A sound that would die of its own accord, but not really, because it had to continue to be heard – if only in your thoughts. It had to be a pure sound, but one with orgasmic desire and interwoven with visions. Narcotic. In his music I really hear the perfect sound that he so desired which makes me intensely happy.

For Schreker you can wake me up in the middle of the night. The fusion of shameless emotions with undisguised eroticism and intense beauty turns me into an ‘Alice in wonderland’. I want more and more of it. Call me a junkie. I consider his operas to be the most beautiful in existence, alongside those of Puccini and Korngold.

When the Nazis came to power, Schreker was labelled an ‘entartet’. His works were banned and no longer performed. In 1933 he was dismissed from all his engagements and suspended. Schreker was devastated. In December of that year he suffered a heart attack which became fatal to him. But even after the war Schreker was hardly ever performed. The same fate awaited him as (among others) Korngold, Braunfels, Goldschmidt, Zemlinsky, Waxman …. An unprecedented number of names of composers. They were once labelled  ‘Entartet’ by the Nazis and banned, reviled, expelled and murdered. Forgotten.

And that was not just the fault of the Nazis.  After the war, the young generation of composers did not want to know about emotions anymore. Music had to be devoid of any sentiment and subject to strict rules. Music had to become universal: serialism was born. The past was dealt with, including composers from the 1930s. It is only in the last thirty years that the once forbidden composers have regained their voices. The Saturday Matinee has played a major role in this and I thank them on my bare knees for that.


The premiere of Der ferne Klang, in Frankfurt in 1912, was very enthusiastically received. In the Frankfurter Zeitung, critic Paul Bekker wrote that “the audience could identify with the central metaphor of Schreker’s work. Everyone hears that enigmatic sound at some point”.

The protagonist is a composer with only one desire: to discover the perfect sound. On his quest for it, he rejects his beloved Grete and leaves everything he loves behind. Only at the end, when it is already too late, does he realise that he could only find the enchanting “distant sound”, along with happiness, in his love for Grete.

There are not many official recordings of the opera on the market. I myself know only one: live recording from Berlin 1991, on Capriccio (60024-2). I’ve never been devastated by that and quietly hoped that NTR will release their September 2004 performance, with Anne Schwanewilms and others. Alas.

Fortunately, Walhall is now coming out with a live radio recording from Frankfurt 1948, and I am very happy about that. It is a fantastic recording, with exceptionally good sound quality for the time.

I did not know any of the singers, the greater the surprise for me. Der Ferne Klang is an opera that is not easy to cast. Both main roles require big voices that are also distinctly lyrical, and Ilse Zeyen (Grete) and Heinrich Bensing (Fritz) are very much so.

The Frankfurt radio orchestra is sublimely conducted by Winfried Zillig, a very well-known German composer music theorist and conductor at the time.

Excerpts can be heard here:



The idea came from Zemlinsky. He wanted to compose an opera about an ugly man – his obsession – and commissioned the libretto from Schreker. After finishing his work, it was hard for Schreker to give up his text. Fortunately, Zemlinsky abandoned the opera so Schreker started to compose himself.

Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Schreker in Prague 1912

Like Der Ferne Klang, perhaps his best-known work, Die Gezeichneten also deals with the search for unattainable ideals. Alviano, a deformed rich nobleman from Genoa, dreams of beauty and perfection. On an island he has ‘Elysium’ built, a place where he hopes to realize his ideals. What he doesn’t know is that the noblemen abuse his island: they are engaged in orgies, rapes and even murders.

Alviano: photo from the premiere in Frankfurt 1918 via Green Integer Blog

The title of the opera is ambiguous. Not only are the main characters ‘marked’ (Alviano by his monstrous appearance and Carlotta by a deadly illness), Carlotta also makes a drawing of Alviano, in which she tries to capture his soul.

This beautiful opera, with its thousands of colours and sensual sounds (just listen to the overture, goosebumps!), is being staged more and more nowadays. In 1990 it was performed at the Saturday Matinee, with an ugly singing but very involved and therefore very vulnerable William Cochran as Alviano and a phenomenal Marilyn Schmiege as Carlotta (Marco Polo 8.223328-330).

Evelyn Lear (Carlotta) and Helmut Krebs (Alviano), scene from the second act:

On Spotify you can find several performances of the complete opera, but if you want to have images as well: below you will find the recording from Salzburg 2005:


In 2010, The Opera in Bonn started a Schreker revival. Kudos! In 2010, Irrelohe was put on the stage there and recorded live by MDG (9371687-6).

The story most resembles a real horror movie. The lords of the Irrelohe castle are cursed. On their wedding day, they go mad and rape a virgin, a curse they pass on to their first-born son. Only a fire and its flames can lift the curse. And those flames do come, at the end, when the beautiful Eva (Ingeborg Greiner) prefers Count Heinrich (irresistible Roman Sadnik) to the bastard Peter (Mark Morouse). You get the idea: Peter is the first-born son of the rapist; Heinrich (who is his half-brother) was born 30 days later. All’s well that ends well, but first we shudder, shiver and enjoy…….

Roman Sadnik in scenes from Irrelohe:

Of the opera there already existed a recording on Sony, recorded live in Vienna in 1989. The Wiener Symphoniker was conducted by Peter Gülke and maybe it is his fault that it does not sound very exciting. The singers (including Luana de Vol and Monte Pederson) are certainly not to blame, although they are nothing to write home about.

Worth knowing:
Schreker wrote the libretto in a very short time (it took him only a few days) in 1919. The work takes its name from a railway station called Irrenlohe which Schreker passed by on a trip to Nuremberg in March 1919.


I had in my possession a pirate recording of Schrekers’s last opera, Der Schmied von Gent from Berlin 1981, but I wasn’t particularly fond of it: neither the sound nor the performance could really please me. Moreover, the opera was hard to follow without a synopsis.

So I was eagerly awaiting the first commercial release of it and lo and behold: there it is! ‘The Smith’ was recorded live in Chemnitz in 2010 and released on CPO (777 647-2), kudos!

It is a “Grosse Zauberoper” with a story a bit close to ‘Der Freischütz’, it also features a devil, as well as Saint Peter and … Alva (it takes place during the Eighty Years’ War). And yes, it all works out.

The cast, including a fantastic Oliver Zwarg in the role of Smee, is excellent.


I don’t think it was wise to include ‘Ekkehard’, a work Franz Schreker wrote while still in his youth. And certainly not to place it at the beginning of the CD. The symphonic overture has little to say, sounds incoherent, is boring and deters rather than invites listening. ‘Phantastische Ouvertüre’ on 15 is hardly any better and even I, a diehard Schreker fan, really had to force myself to keep listening to it.

But it could also be a bit down to the young English conductor Christopher Ward. He conducts very skilfully but lacks a real drive. Nor can I escape the impression that he doesn’t quite understand the ‘Schrekian idiom’, because somewhere between all the very neatly played notes he has quite lost the eroticism. You hear it best in Schreker’s best-known piece, his ‘Vorspiel zu einer grossen Oper’.

Fortunately, on that CD you will also find two songs; two settings to the poem by Walt Whitman, (translated into German by Hans Reisiger) entitled ‘Vom Ewigen Leben’ and here you hear the real Schreker. Sensual and languorous. That my final verdict is not negative is therefore thanks  to these songs being sung beautifully, with much sehnsucht, by Australian soprano Valda Wilson.


The unsurpassed Reinild Mees took the initiative and (of course) got behind the piano herself, to accompany and record two CDs full of Schreker’s songs. It features Jochen Kupfer, Ofelia Sala and Anne Buter and the result is truly outstanding (Channel Classics CCS 12098 and CCS 14398)

Also highly recommended is a release by Koch Schwann (3-6454-2), hopefully still for sale, which includes, in addition to the prelude to Irrelohe and ‘Vorspiel zu einer grossen Oper’, again the truly irresistible song cycle ‘Vom ewigen Leben’, after Walt Whitman’s poems.

It is phenomenally sung by Claudia Barainsky – for her alone, with her radiant height and tremendous understanding of the text, you really must have the CD. Not to mention the fantastically playing Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The conductor, Peter Ruzicka understands exactly what Schreker’s music is all about.

For dessert, one of the most beautiful instrumental works by my beloved composer: Vorspiel zu einem Drama from 1913. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Jascha Horenstein:

A new arrival:

Christoph Eschenbach and Chen Reiss

“Christoph Eschenbach conducts this generous survey of the sumptuous, hyper-Romantic music of Austrian composer Franz Schreker. Not only was he the pre-eminent opera composer of his generation, he also, says Eschenbach, “took Mahler’s symphonic writing to a whole new level”. The album includes the ecstatic “Nachtstück” from Der ferne Klang, the exquisite Chamber Symphony and some ravishing orchestral songs, featuring Chen Reiss and Matthias Goerne”(© DG)

The Belcea Quartet spotlighted

It was about 25 years ago, I think, that I first became acquainted with the then very young Belcea Quartet. They had then recently made their debut in the Rising Stars series in the Concertgebouw’s Kleine Zaal, the programme included string quartets by Schubert and Thomas Adès. I also got the opportunity to speak at length with (the members of) the quartet.

© Ronald Knapp

At eleven o’clock in the morning, I rang the doorbell at hotel Verdi in Amsterdam, where the quartet was staying. The intention was to have a bite to eat with Corina Belcea and Krzysztof Chorzelski. And to talk about the quartet, of course.

Unfortunately, Corina had fallen ill so they suggested they’d stay in the hotel breakfast room.

Corina, frail and girlish, coughing heavily, and looking so pitiful that I wonder how she will be able to play that night.

And yet she leads the conversation, just as she leads the quartet – very briskly and confidently.

Corina Belcea was born in Romania in 1975. She won a few violin competitions, including Yehudi Menuhin’s, which had earned her a scholarship to the music school of the same name in London.
Why did she choose to play quartet and not a solo career?

“In the Yehudi Menuhin music school where I started studying in 1991, chamber music was the main item on the agenda. Everyone was doing it, so I was too. And I loved it.”

“When I started my studies at the Royal College in 1994, I decided to start a string quartet with three friends from my school days. After a year and a half, exactly a week before an important competition, our viola player dropped out. Then I asked Krzysztof, who was my best friend, if he was up to the challenge. He was a violinist at the time and had never played even a single note on the viola.”

Did it take a long time to learn to play the viola?
Chorzelski, laughing: “I’m still learning!”

Their repertoire includes a lot of modern music. Not that they are going to specialise in that, but at a concert they want to play at least one quartet from the 20th century. And they order new works, one per season, which they then actually perform. For instance, they have performed five compositions written especially for them, including Two movements for String Quartet by Simenon ten Holt, which they love. Very expressive.

And Thomas Adès’ quartet, which they will play later that evening?
“Oh, but that one is already quite a few years old! Adès was only 22 at the time but the work is really unprecedented and so incredibly beautiful. We consider it one of the greatest works in the modern repertoire.”

“The composer himself is also an extraordinary person, very inspiring. A few times we have played with him, and a while back we recorded Schubert’s Piano Quintet together (Warner Classics 5576642)

They always choose their repertoire together, “democratically”.
“We almost always agree with each other. Besides, we can’t play something, which we don’t like, anyway”.
What do they like most?
“Schubert. Beethoven. Mozart. And Janaček.”

And Shostakovich?

“Hmmm… Let’s say we’re not there quite yet”

It took a few years but by now Shostakovich has also become well known to the Belceas. In the previous few years, they have played just about all his string quartets live but never put his work on CD before.

And now they have!
For Belgian Alpha, they have recorded the third string quartet and, reinforced by Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewsk, the piano quintet, and the result is undoubtedly excellent but with a few caveats.

The piano quintet dates from 1940. Its premiere, by the Beethoven Quartet with the composer himself at the piano, was greeted very enthusiastically by all. It earned Shostakovich the Stalin Prize, plus a considerable sum of money.

How different things were with the third string quartet! Again, it was premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, in 1946. The work was initially censored by the Soviet regime. Critics found the note with which the piece ends ‘ambiguous’ and Shostakovich was even accused of hiding coded messages against Stalin in it!

Shostakovich String Quartet no.3

The Belcea Quartet’s performance is milder than what I am used to. It’s not that the sting has been taken out, as the bitterness is still very prominent. But now you can listen to it several times in a row, without your ears getting tired. In a manner of speaking, that is.

Even the quintet, surely one of Shostakovich’s ‘sunniest’ compositions, sounds even more pleasant than usual to my ears. Incredibly beautiful, yes, but what I miss a little is the undertone – always present with Shostakovich – that makes it less pleasant for the listener.

Peanuts really. The four strings and the pianist feel each other very well, forging it into a beautiful, homogeneous whole. Without a doubt an asset!

‘Prehistoric’ Ligeti brilliantly performermed

For me, Leoš Janáček’s string quartets form the absolute opus magnus of the genre. Call me sentimental, but at the very first bars of number two my eyes fill with tears and I am really swept up in all the emotions. Over the years, many excellent versions have appeared on the market, of which the DG recording, by the then still very young Hagen Quartet, is the most precious to me.

It is not the first time that Belcea tried their hand at the string quartets: already in 2001, they recorded them for Zig Zag Territoires (ZZT 010701). I was not exactly over the moon then, somehow I did not feel they got to the core of the music. Still, I cherish the recording: I am a real ‘Belcea fan’.

I find the recording on Alpha Classis refreshing. The tempi are a bit fast, but that does not hurt. The players somewhat control their emotions, so that a lot of underground tension can be felt. Nice.

But what makes the CD a real must is the performance of Ligeti’s first string quartet. The Hungarian master composed it in 1954, two years later he had to flee the country, after which he referred to this composition as a ‘prehistoric Ligeti’.

Prehistoric or not: I think it is genius. It keeps you nailed to your seat and you can’t help but listen: preferably with all doors and windows closed, so you will not be disturbed.
The string quartet, which for a good reason bears the name Métamorphoses nocturnes (yes, call it programmatic), is not performed very often, but of all the performances I have heard so far, the Belceas’ is definitely at the top.

Let’s talk about Simon Boccanegra! The real one ánd the one from Verdi’s opera.

Possible representation of Simone (or Guglielmo) Boccanegra at the Palazzo San Giorgio (Genoa).

The real Simone Boccanegra was the very first doge of Genoa, and, unlike his brother Egidio, not a pirate at all. It was the Spanish poet Antonio Garcia Gutièrrez who had combined the two characters into one, adding an extra dimension to the story.

The story itself is indeed very complex, but no more difficult to retell than, say, Il Trovatore. Still, the premiere in 1857 was a fiasco, after which the opera disappeared for more than 20 years.

Set design by Girolamo Magnani for the revised Simon Boccanegra premiered at Milan’s La Scala in 1881: A Piazza in Genoa, Prologue. © Bertelsmann. com

In 1880, Verdi decided to completely revise the work, with the help of Arrigo Boito. A golden touch, which also marked the beginning of the fruitful collaboration between the two composers.

Front and back of Edel’s design for Amelia’s costume in Act 1. The illustrated design boards often provided detailed technical indications for the theater tailoring shop regarding cloth types and colors, shoes, headgear, and various accoutrements and decorations © Bertelsmann. com

Boito thoroughly reworked the libretto, created a new finale for the first act (the council scene), and further developed the character of the protagonist. To no avail: until the second half of the 20th century, the opera was only seldom performed and there are still those who consider the work unbalanced and boring. How unjustified!

Costume designs by Alfredo Edel, left: Simon Boccanegra, in the Prologue; middle: Simon Boccanegra, Act 1, Scene 2; right: Fiesco, Prologue © Bertelsmann.com

Personally, I find it one of Verdi’s most exciting and beautiful operas, with a very strong and human story, and the most beautiful bass aria ever (‘Il lacerate spirito’).

Giulio Neri sings Il Lacerato Spirito:

Admittedly, the opera is something of a hybrid with a mix of styles, because in addition to the typical “middle Verdian” music that occasionally strongly reminds one of that of Trovatore, Ballo in Maschera or Rigoletto, there is also a foreshadowing of Otello (second scene of the first act, for instance, when Amelia’s kidnapping is announced). Not a bad thing, because that is precisely what makes the work varied and surprising.

People say the opera is dark, and that’s true. It is also mournful, with mostly melancholic and sad music, and with only one bright spot: ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’, Amelia’s ode to the beauty of sky and sea. But even there the melancholy keeps resonating.

The fact that four of the five male leads are sung by singers with low voices is, of course, also very influential on the musical colours.


The first studio recording of Simone Boccanegra was made by EMI (now Warner Classics 2435674835) in 1957. Under the direction of Gabriele Santini a truly magnificent cast was assembled: Tito Gobbi as Simone, Boris Christoff as Fiesco and Victoria de los Angeles as Amelia. Very beautiful.


In 1973, RCA recorded the opera (RD 70729). Gianandrea Gavazenni conducts in a sluggish way and produces little or no excitement. A pity really, as the cast is excellent. It is one of the first recordings of Katia Ricciarelli, a singer with the lyricism of a nightingale. Her Amelia is so pure, so virginal – a teenage girl really still, eager to keep her little secret to herself a little longer. Nor is her love for Adorno really earthly, though in fact, Amelia is really almost thirty!

Katia Ricciarelli sings ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’:

Piero Cappuccilli is a splendid Simon and Ruggero Raimondi a fine Fiesco. As Adorno, Placido Domingo is a little too dominant and too determined, though his singing is obviously impeccable


In 1971, Claudio Abbado conducted a magisterial and now legendary performance of Boccanegra at La Scala. It was directed by Giorgio Strehler and the beautiful sets were designed by Ezio Frigerio.

In 1976, the production was filmed at the ROH in Covent Garden. Unfortunately, no official (there are ‘pirates’ in circulation) video of it was made, but the full cast did go into the studio, and the ultimate ‘Simone’ was recorded in 1977 (DG 4497522).

Abbado treats the score with such love and such reverence as if it were the greatest masterpiece of all time, and under his hands it truly transforms into a masterpiece without parallel. Such tension, and so many nuances! It is so, so beautiful, it will make you cry.

The cast too is the best ever. Piero Cappuccilli (Simon) and Nicolai Ghiaurov (Fiesco) are evenly matched. Both in their enmity and reconciliation, they are deeply human and always convincing, and in their final duet at the end of the opera, their voices melt together in an almost supernatural symbiosis:

Before that, they pass through all ranges of feelings and moods, from grievous to hurtful, and from loving to hating. Just hear Cappuccilli’s long-held ‘Maria’ at the end of the duet with his supposedly dead and found daughter (‘Figlia! A tal nome palpito’)

José van Dam is an exquisitely vile Paolo and Mirella Freni and Jose Carreras are an ideal love couple. The young Carreras had a voice that seems just about created for the role of Adorno: lyrical with a touch of temper, underlining Gabriele’s brashness. Freni is more than just a naive girl, in her love for Adorno she shows herself to be a real flesh-and-blood woman.


A fine performance of ‘Simone’ was recorded live in Vienna in 1961 (Gala GL 100,508). Gianandrea Gavazzeni is more exciting than on his RCA studio recording, but he cannot match Abbado.


Still, this recording is very worthwhile, not least because of Leyla Gencer’s Amelia. The Turkish soprano was the equal of Callas, only much less fortunate and she had to make do without having a recording contract. Tito Gobbi is an excellent Simone, and there is little to criticise about the rest of the cast either.

Leyla Gencer and Tito Gobbi in ‘Figlia! a tal nome palpito’:


A new (the previous one, with Domingo, Milnes and Tomova-Sintov was directed by Tito Capobianco and released by very hard-to-get Pioneer in 1984) Simone was recorded at the Metropolitan Opera in 1995, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco (DG 0731319).

The staging is very naturalistic, eliciting bravos. The costumes and sets are also overwhelming and elaborate to the smallest details, beautiful to the eye, but not conducive to the drama unvolding. One loses oneself, as it were, in the details.

James Levine, meanwhile, has upped his tempi, and there is a decent pace. The direction is a bit static at first, but gradually it becomes more exciting. Robert Lloyd is a tormented Fiesco, but lacks the deep thirst for vengeance. Domingo is optically a bit too old for Adorno, too confident too, but he can sing like no other.

Kiri te Kanawa is a problematic Amelia: her face has only one expression and she has never heard of character portraiture, but her singing is certainly beautiful. Vladimir Chernov is very strong as Simone, whom he portrays as a kind of Jesus figure in the third act.

An excerpt from the production:


At the Maggio Musicale in Florence (June 2002), Claudio Abbado conducted a superb production by Peter Stein, which had previously been seen in Salzburg. Stein refrained from any updating of the opera, and so it is set in Genoa in the 14th century, including the blue sea and the doge’s council chamber.

The costumes too are in style, exquisitely beautiful and in brilliant colours. So the plebeians (in blue) can be distinguished from the patricians (red). The sets, on the other hand, are very sparse, giving extra attention to the few props – an example of clever manipulation.

Karita Mattila shines as Amelia. She polishes her high notes like gems: hear how her ‘pace’ towers above everything else in ‘Plebe! Patrizi’ in the second act.

Lucio Gallo puts down a vile Paolo and Carlo Guelfi moves us as Simon. Most bravos, however, are for the seriously ill and severely emaciated Abbado. What he manages to elicit from the orchestra, choir and soloists borders on the impossible (Arthaus Musik 107073)

Trailer of the production:


The star of this recording from Bologna (Arthaus Music 101 307) is Michele Mariotti. He comes up, looks around nervously, shakes the hands of a few orchestra members, puts a nervous smile on his face and bites his lips. And then he raises his baton and the spell begins.

I cannot remember the last time this opera was so beautifully conducted, so lovingly and with such élan, spirituality and bravura. Mariotti, born in 1979, graduated cum laude in Pesaro in 2004. His Boccanegra, recorded in Bologna in November 2007, was such a great success that he was immediately appointed as the principal conductor there.

The cast is mostly young. Giuseppe Gipali (Adorno) possesses a ringing tenor voice with an old-fashioned timbre, but unfortunately also with an old-fashioned way of (not) acting. This is much better handled by the beautiful Carmen Giannattasio (Amelia), who reminds me a little of Kiri te Kanawa in terms of tonal beauty.

Roberto Frontali is a convincing Boccanegra, Marco Vratogna a very vile Paolo and Alberto Rota shines in the small role of Pietro. The production is quite traditional, with fine period costumes.

Closing of the opera:

Gina Cigna as Norma

In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, Norma was only rarely performed. Opera history mentions only two memorable performances: in 1926 at the Metropolitan Opera (with Rosa Ponselle and Lauri-Volpi) and in 1936 at La Scala, with Gina Cigna.

In 1937, the very first (almost) complete recording of “Norma” was made: with Gina Cigna, Ebe Stignani and Giovanni Brevario, conducted by Vittorio Gui (various labels). the sound is still quite good, although obviously not optimal.

In the opera world there is a general opinion that most (Bel canto) singers before Callas were light, like canaries. This is not true. Just listen to Cigna’s full, dark timbre and to her sense of drama.

Cigna approaches the role from the verist tradition and plays it heavily. There are no coloraturas, but her technique is phenomenal and her top notes firm and pure. However, she is not a real actress, thus her interpretation is far behind that of Callas (among others).

Adalgisa is sung here by the young Ebe Stignani: a beautiful, warm mezzo, much more convincing here than in all her later recordings.

Giovanni Breviario is an inferior Pollione, but orchestrally this recording is, together with those of Serafin (Rome 1955) and Muti (Turin 1974), one of the three finest Normas. Partly because of this (and the particularly moving sung ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’) it is well worth listening to.

Gina Cigna and Giovanni Breviario in ‘Deh! non volerli vittime’:

For Renée Fleming on her Birthday

Bel Canto

When this CD came out in 2010, it was greeted with quite a lot of suspicion, but the combination is really less strange than you think. Nowadays, Fleming is mainly associated with Mozart and Strauss, but her career began with singing (among others) Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini.

Fleming grew up in a musical family; both her parents were singing teachers. It was also her mother, who gave her her first singing lessons. She achieved her first major success in 1988 in Houston, as the Contessa in Nozze di Figaro, but her international breakthrough came in 1993, when she performed Armida at the Rossini festival in Pesaro, a role she subsequently repeated at Carnegie Hall. She has also not only recorded, but also performed scenically, the lead roles in Maria Padilla, La Sonnambula, Il Pirata and Lucrezia Borgia.

“When I started singing, I thought bel canto operas were the foundation of every singer’s repertoire. All the singers I admired then: Sutherland, Callas, Caballé, Sills, Scotto sung them. It was quite shocking to discover that in the professional world of opera there was such a thing as a ‘Mozart/Strauss soprano’, and that that soprano never sang bel canto.”

“If I had to count them, there are seven complete bel canto roles I have sung live. I learnt most of them in the early years of my career, when I often worked with Eve Queler. But I also learnt a lot from Montserrat Caballé. We sang together in Il Viaggio a Reims and we discussed the repertoire many times. Marilyn Horne also meant much to me and I learned my high notes from Joan Sutherland at her home”.

The “Bel Canto” CD is just wonderful. The music is magnificent and Fleming’s interpretations superior. Her creamy soprano and exquisite height may be widely known, but her colouraturas and expressiveness are just as fine. Her fabulous breathing technique allows her to spin out the longest arches into the finest pianissimi.

Philip Gossett is a specialist in nineteenth-century opera. He has worked with Renée Fleming many times before and especially for her he ‘reconstructed’ the ornamentation in the well-known cabalettas, including those from La Sonnambula. The result is very surprising and exciting, although one has to get used to those different notes.


Optically, Fleming is just about the most beautiful Arabella ever. Not just beautiful, but so full of herself: you can see her asking the mirror “mirror, mirror on the wall”, so to speak….
I can no longer ask Strauss, of course, but I suspect she could have been the model Arabella for him. Also her velvety way of singing as if you landed under a down duvet….

Julia Kleiter is a good Zdenka, but Morten Frank Larsen (Mandryka) is simply Danish. He looks Danish and he sings Danish. Too bad, because the direction by Götz Friedrich (Zurich 2007) is extremely exciting.

Below is a scene with Renée Fleming and Julia Kleiter:


Carsen moved the action to Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942, the time of the opera’s creation. The setting is the entire Palais Garnier, including the majestic staircase, the long corridors and the boxes in the auditorium. I assume video technology was used, but I don’t really get how it is done. So it is with bated breath that I watch the Countess, who looks admiringly from her box at her alter ego singing on stage. A truly ingenious invention for the final scene, in which she was originally supposed to sing her long final monologue in front of the mirror.

The opera’s final scene:

It is mentioned at the beginning of the opera that the text and the music are like brother and sister, and so too are the two rivals, the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier; they end up sitting fraternally in the opera’s lounging sofa, looking tenderly at their joint child: a symbiosis of words and notes. An opera.

A better Madeleine than Renée Fleming can hardly be imagined. With her endless legato, her round, creamy soprano and (not least) her scenic presence, she portrays a countess with narcissistic traits: beautiful, self-conscious, aloof and very admirable.
Her brother, portrayed by Dietrich Henschel, is a match for her, and though he does not physically resemble her, his traits betray the family ties.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to choose between the two gentlemen in love, as both Gerald Finley (Olivier) and Rainer Trost (Flamand) look very attractive in their well-groomed suits, and neither their voices nor their acting can be faulted.

Franz Hawlata is a phenomenal La Roche, and the delightful Robert Tear portrays an entertaining Monsieur Taupe.

Anne Sofie von Otter is unrecognisable as the “diva” Clairon – her entrance, with which, accompanied by a Nazi officer, she causes a lot of commotion, evokes memories of the great actresses of the 1940s.

The direction is so brilliant that you simply forget that this is an opera, and not the real world. Everyone moves and acts very naturally, and the costumes are dazzlingly beautiful. Were it not for the occasional, but very prominently portrayed, Nazis, one could imagine oneself in a utopian world of serene tranquillity.

Was this what Richard Strauss’ world looked like back then? Perhaps that was the message? I leave the conclusion to you.

Renée Fleming sings Berg, Wellesz and Zeisl. A must buy!

There is no shortage of recordings of Berg’s Lyric Suite. Both in the version for string quartet and in the version for chamber orchestra: the choices are many. Whether it was Berg’s intention we cannot really know for certain, but we assume it was: the last movement, the Largo Desolato,  may also be sung.

Theodor Adorno, Berg’s pupil and confidant, considered the work to be an almost latent opera and that makes sense. Adorno was one of the few who knew about Berg’s affair with the married Hanna Fuchs, for whom he composed the work. For Berg, Fuchs was not only his lover and muse, but also his Isolde and his Lulu.

It is not the first time, by the way, that the poem by Baudelauire, the source of inspiration for the last part of the quartet, is actually sung. The Kronos Quartet and Dawn Upshaw had already recorded the version in 2003, there is also a recording by Quator Diotima with Sandrine Piau. The “Emerson”, however, offer us both versions: with and without vocals.

The decision to link Berg’s Lyric Suite to the songs of Egon Wellesz is nothing less than genius. Both composers had received their training from Schönberg, who had taught them not only the twelve-tone technique, but also to use a large dose of expressionism. Something you hear very clearly in the cycle Sonette der Elisabeth Barrett Browning.

That the songs are not performed more often is not only strange, but also a great shame. Of course, this has everything to do with the “once forbidden and then forgotten” attitude, which has also been fatal for Eric Zeisl. His short song Komm Süsser Tod makes us long for more: couldn’t there be some Zeisl added to the CD? It’s not the lack of space: at just 56 minutes, the CD is very short.

Renée Fleming’s creamy, cultured soprano and her mannerism fit the songs like a glove. The result is a beautiful cross between Gustav Klimmt and Max Beckmann. The very imaginative and expressive performance by the Emerson String Quartet adds to the overall experience. A must.

Decca 4788399

Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Renée Fleming

The life of an opera star is no bed of roses. You are born with a voice that you then try to mould into an instrument that will always obey you. Throughout your life, you work on your technique, take language and acting lessons and you keep your body in shape because appearance is also very important, especially for a woman. And should you not only be wanting a career but also a family life, then things get tough. No wonder that at some point you start to question what is most important in your life and where your priorities really lie.

In the wonderful documentary by Tony Palmer (the maker of more wonderful documentaries, just think of the film about Maria Callas), Renée Fleming, one of the greatest opera singers of our time, talks at length about her fears and doubts. We see her during rehearsals and performances, we admire her dresses, watch home videos showing an apparently happy family life and wipe away a tear listening to her rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ at Ground Zero.

At the presentation of a new creation from the master pastry chef: a chocolate treat called ‘La Diva Renée’, we get slightly moved. And she well deserves it.

Another one whom we forgot: Karl Weigel and the Viennese tradition

Karl Weigl, ca. 1910; the photograph was featured in Die Musik (1910) to accompany Richard Specht’s essay “Die Jungwiener Tondichter.

Karl Ignaz Weigl was born in 1881 in Vienna into an assimilated Jewish family. In 1938, he fled to New York, where he died ten years later. He was important contributor to the ferment of musical styles in Vienna in the early twentieth century. His compositions, which are still rarely being performed, are very traditional, anchored in a ‘Viennese sound’.

Karl Weigl on board the S.S. Statendam during the transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York in October 1938.

That his symphonies are occasionally reminiscent of Mahler is not so surprising: Weigl worked closely with Mahler as his personal assistant at the Vienna Court Opera. But Brahms, too, is never far away.

In 1938 Arnold Schönberg wrote: ‘I have always regarded Dr. Weigl as one of the best composers of the old school; one of those who continued the glittering Viennese tradition’. No one could have put it better.rl Weigl on board the S.S. Statendam during the transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York in October 1938.rl Weigl on board the S.S. Statendam during the transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York in October 1938

Weigl studied with Zemlinsky, who held his pupil’s compositions in very high esteem. His works were performed by the most distinguished musicians, like Furtwängler and Georg Szell. It is truly unimaginable that he was so utterly forgotten: it was only after the year 2000 that record companies began to take some interest in his music. So huge kudos to Capriccio that, it seems, is in the process of creating a real Weigl (and more forgotten composers)-revival.

Weigl composed his fourth symphony in 1936. When I put the CD on, I first thought I was dealing with an unfamiliar version of Mahler 1; the resemblance is more than striking. But even the sixth symphony has its ‘Mahler moments’: think of the seventh!  The performance by the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz conducted by Jürgen Bruns is outstanding

The ‘glittering Viennese tradition’ is Weigl’s main trademark. To put it irreverently, his music may be seen as sort of a gateway. A kind of corridor that runs from a classical Beethoven via a soul-stirring Schubert and an underground erotic Zemlinsky to finally end up in Weigl’s calm waters, and from there it finds its way to our hearts.

Weigl is not a composer I have heard much of (no, it’s not my fault) and apart from his, by the way, wonderful songs and a few of his chamber music compositions, I did not know him very well. So this CD is more than welcome, especially because the musicianship is so incredibly good.

I am most charmed by the violinist David Frühwirth. His tone is very sweet, as sweet as a Viennese Sachertarte. You can hear it best in the very Schubertian piano trio, but make no mistake! Just listen to the allegro molto, the third movement of the second violin sonata from1937 and you discover the complexity of the ‘Wiener-sound’.

And I feel free to use another quote, this time from Pablo Casals: “His music will not be lost, after the storm we will return to it, one day we will return to those who wrote real music.” It has taken a while and we are still far away, but a beginning has been made.

Detail of Karl Weigl diary entry, summer, 1937.