Arnold Schoenberg firmly believed that Joseph Achron was the most underrated composer of his generation. Schoenberg praised his originality and claimed Achron’s music was destined for eternity. Yet, despite his enthusiastic praise, Joseph Achron never became a household name.
Violin buffs no doubt know his Hebrew Melody, a much loved encore of many violinists, starting with Heifetz.
Hebrew Melody, here played by Josef Hassid:
Hebrew Melody is inspired by a theme Achron heard as a young boy in a synagogue in Warsaw. It is one of his earliest compositions, dating from 1911, and his first “Jewish” work. In the year he composed it Achron joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music.
Joseph Achron as a child in Warsaw
But let’s start at the beginning. Joseph Achron was born in 1886 in Russia and died 57 years later in Los Angeles. His mother was an estimable singer, and his father was a cantor who also played the violin. Joseph received his first violin lessons from him, but soon he was replaced by professional teachers. At age eight he gave his first performance, and by the time he was eighteen, he had finished his first compositions.
His career as a composer properly started in the twenties of the last century. In Saint Petersburg, Achron joined the composers of the “New Jewish School.” Several years later he moved to Berlin, where he got acquainted with the works of the French impressionists, and the Second Viennese School.
In 1924 he made a trip of several months to Palestine. He not only performed there, but also collected a huge variety of folk music he discovered there. The notes he took during this trip were later used for several of his compositions. In his Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 60 (1925) several Yemenite themes can be heard.
Joseph Achron (right) with members of the cast of The Golem. H. Leivick (center), New York. Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.
In 1925 he moved to New York where he was invited to compose music for the Yiddish theatre. Achron wrote the music for several of their productions, including Stempenyu, a play by Sholem Aleichem about a Jewish violinist.
The Stempenyu Suite, performed by Karen Bentley Pollick and Jascha Nemtsov:
In the thirties Joseph Achron moved to Hollywood, where he died in 1943.
Much of Achron’s music still awaits discovery by wider circles, although numerous attempts have been made to rekindle interest in it. Since the nineties of the last century two CDs came out with compositions for violin and piano. Different as they are, both interpretations are highly valuable, if only for the opportunity they provide to finally get to know – and appreciate – his compositions.
On the ASV label we hear Miriam Kramer, a young English violinist, once named ‘United Kingdom’s Performer of the Year’. Her CD starts with a slightly hesitant rendition of the 1ère Suite en Style Ancien from 1906 ( a world premiere recording). From Sonata No. 1, Op. 29 onwards her tone gets steadier and in Children’s Suite it is possible to enjoy her without any reservations. Her pianist, the Dutch Simon Over, provides excellent support. The reason I am not overenthusiastic lies not with Kramer, but with Hagai Shaham, the soloist on the second Achron CD.
(Joseph Achron: Music for Violin & Piano; Miriam Kramer, Simon Over; ASV CD QS 6235)
Hagai Shaham (not related to Gil) is an Israeli from the school of the famous violin teacher Ilona Feher. His tone is warm and dark and he plays with bravura and agility, and plenty of schmaltz when necessary. Unashamed enjoyment from start to finish! If you do not fall in love with this CD, then I give up.
Shaham’s regular accompanist is Arnon Erez, also from Israel. The textbook is in two languages: English and Yiddish (Stempenyu. The violin music of Joseph Achron; Hagai Shaham, Arnon Erez; Biddulph LAW 021)
Fifteen years after their Biddulph recording Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez turned their attention to Achron’s music for a second time. In 2012 they recorded the Complete Suites for Violin and Piano for Hyperion, including the Stempenyu Suite and, of course, the Hebrew Melody (Hyperion CDA67841).
How many music lovers, even seasoned ones, have heard of Szymon Laks? Let alone of his music? Fate has been unkind to the Polish-French composer. Laks survived the hell of Auschwitz thanks to music: after he was taken captive, he was appointed conductor of the concentration camp’s orchestra.
Laks wrote a book about his time in the camp, after which he became known as the ‘kapellmeister of Auschwitz’. Extremely painful. Like his son André stated: it may be true his father survived the war thanks to music, it should never be forgotten he mainly lived for music as well.
Ruth Klüger, a famous author, Germanist and Holocaust survivor wrote about Auschwitz in her book ‘Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered’ : “The name itself has an aura, albeit a negative one, that came with the patina of time, and people who want to say something important about me announce that I have been in Auschwitz. But whatever you may think, I do not hail from Auschwitz, I come from Vienna.”
Szymon Laks did not hail from Auschwitz, he was born in 1901 in Warsaw. He left for Paris in 1926 to finish his musical studies there. He studied with Pierre Vidal and Henri Rabaud and soon became part of the “Paris School.” A group consisting mainly of young, Eastern European composers like Bohuslav Martinů and Marcel Mihalovici, with composers like Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc as central figures.
This French school with its formal structures and neoclassical lines was a great influence on Laks, especially in his earlier works, but his oeuvre was also strongly rooted in the Polish tradition. Polish music, both classical and folk music was his biggest inspiration.
In May 1941 Laks was arrested and interned in the French camp Pithiviers as a foreign Jew. On July 16th 1942 he was deported from there to Auschwitz. In 1944 he was transferred to Dachau. After his liberation he returned to Paris.
Before the war Laks worked in cinemas as an accompanist of silent films, and also played the violin in cafés. After the war all he composed, with a few exceptions, was film music. In 1962 he started to compose again, but this period did not last very long.
In 1967 Laks stopped composing altogether. The Six-Day War played a role in that decision, as well as the huge antisemitic wave that followed it in Poland. He told his son that he felt composing music was no longer of any use at all. The events in the Middle-East and the antisemitic excesses in Poland meant to Laks that the existence of the Jewish people was under threat once again.
The exodus of the remaining Polish Jews in 1968 did not only embitter him, but also worsened his attacks of depression which had plagued him for a long time.
Szymon Laks was an assimilated Jew who always felt more Polish than Jewish. For this reason his pre-war works were not influenced by Jewish traditions, something which changed shortly after the war. In 1947 Laks composed his song cycle ‘Huit chants populaires juifs’ followed soon afterwards by stage music for ‘Dem sjmiets techter’ by Peretz Hirschbein.
The Canadian ARC Ensemble has been working on a series “Music in Exile” for several years now. After the first two volumes with music by Paul Ben-Haim and Jerzy Fitelberg (the latter was nominated for a Grammy) they have now dedicated volume three to the music of Szymon Laks.
This CD is worth buying for the Fourth String Quartet from 1962 alone. This rhythmical work shows strong jazz influences in a classicist form. Diverse styles are affectionately combined without actually merging. Almost like passersby in a park, greeting each other warmly, exchanging a few words, and then continuing their way. Fascinating.
How different from his “Polish” Third String Quartet from 1945 which the Canadian Ensemble recorded in the version for Piano Quintet from 1967! The Quintet has a less serious tone, parts of it are nothing more than pure entertainment. Polish folk melodies are combined with dancing passages, with every now and then time standing still, allowing you to wipe away a tear.
‘Passacaille’ from 1945 is in fact a vocalise, originally composed for voice (or cello) accompanied by piano. Here the piece is performed by a clarinet, a choice I am not entirely happy with because a clarinet simply sounds less warm than a human voice. Simon Wynberg, the artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, sees the work as Laks’s reaction on his concentration camp experiences, expressing them in his music. Can this be true? I would like to believe it.
Passacaille, in the version for cello and piano:
Almost all pieces get their CD premiere here, but other factors make this CD a real must have as well. The quality of this long neglected music is high, of course, as are the excellent performances by the musicians. Consider buying this CD as a late reparation to the composer, who was definitely more than “kapellmeister of Auschwitz.”
ARC Ensemble records works by Laks:
LEO SMIT ENSEMBLE
In case you want to hear more by Szymon Laks: several years ago the Leo Smit Ensemble recorded a CD with works by Laks (Future Classics 111), which includes the “Huit chants populaires juifs.” The Passacaille is included as well, in the version for flute and piano, masterly performed by Eleonore Pamijer and Marcel Worms.
Much recommended as well is the recent recording by the Polish Szymanowski Quartet (Avi 8553158). In addition to the Third String Quartet on Polish themes by Laks from 1945 it includes the String Quartet by Ravel and the Nocturne & Tarantella op. 28 from 1915 by Karol Szymanowski. It is fascinating to compare their performance of the “Polish Quartet” with the adaptation for Piano Quintet by the ARC Ensemble.
A few years ago Apple Republic Films started a series of documentaries on Polish-Jewish composers: the Masters Revival Series. In 2012 they made a film on Szymon Laks in collaboration with the composer’s son:
Les Martyrs, an almost forgotten grand opera by Donizetti started its life as Poliuto. The French libretto by Eugène Scribe was based on Polyeucte by Pierre Corneille from 1642 which was impregnated by the vision of its author that free will is a deciding factor in life.
Because of the choice of the topic – the life and martyrdom of Saint Polyeuctus – the censor had Poliuto banned, and opening night was cancelled. It was forbidden to show the persecution of Christians on stage in Naples at the time.
After Donizetti arrived in Paris he commissioned a new libretto from Scribe and rewrote and expanded the overture and composed several new arias for the title character.
He also changed the first act finale and added the required ballet music. He then considerably toned down the romantic entanglements and stressed the religious aspects even more.
In his big aria at the end of the second act Poliuto complains about the supposed disloyalty of his wife and speaks about the jealousy that torments him. His “Let me die in peace, I do not want anything to do with you, you have been unfaithful to me” from Polyeucte has been changed to the credo (now at the end of the third act): “I believe in God, the almighty father, creator of heaven and earth….”
Despite its early successes the Martyrs failed to hold the stage. Instead Poliuto made it’s return, albeit on few occasions. After 1920 the opera was performed only sporadically (a remarkable fact: in 1942 Poliuto was performed on the occasion of Hitler’s visit to Mussolini, the title role sung by Benjamino Gigli).
Thanks to Callas, who rediscovered the opera in 1960, a short revival came about. Her live recording from La Scala with Franco Corelli left me cold. The reason for that I only understood later when I heard the live recording with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. In an opera with vulnerability as its main theme big dramatic voices sound out of place.
In October 2016 Opera Rara recorded Les Martyrs in the studio, followed by a concert performance in November.
Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres
Joyce El-Khoury, clearly following in the footsteps of Leyla Gencer, is the perfect Pauline: dreamy, loving and fighting like a lioness (nomen est omen) for the life of her husband who turned into a Christian. A husband she does not even love. Only because she believed her former fiancé was dead she has agreed to be married off to her father’s protégé.
In “Qu’ici ta main glacée” she sounds very vulnerable, moving me to tears (her pianissimi!). “Dieux immortels, témoins de mes justes alarmes,” her confrontation scene with Sévère, her lover she believes to be dead (a very impressive David Kempster) is simply heartbreaking.
Michael Spyres is a very heroic Polyeucte. In “Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples” he sings a fully voiced, perfect high “E.”
The orchestra under Sir Mark Elder is on fire. The three ballet scenes halfway though the second act lighten up the mood a little, however briefly.
Much praise as well for the perfect singing of the Opera Rara Chorus (chorus master Stephen Harris).
English translation: Remko Jas
Joyce El-Khoury, Michael Spyres, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley, Wynne Evans a.o.
Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Mark Elder
Opera Rara ORC52
The first time I met Joyce El-Khoury was by coincidence. We happened to sit next to each other during opening night of Gounod’s Faust at the National Opera and started an animated conversation, which continued during intermission and after the opera had ended. We got along so well, in fact, that we soon made an appointment to continue our conversation elsewhere.
Joyce El-Khoury with Michael Fabiano in Amsterdam
A few days afterwards we meet at an almost deserted outdoor café on Rembrandt Square. The weather is gorgeous – the sun reflecting itself in our wine glasses. El-Khoury loves Amsterdam, and cannot get enough of the city.
In November 2014 El-Khoury will return to Amsterdam for Musetta (La Bohème) and the prospect to spend six entire weeks there already makes her happy. She immediately discards my remarks on the weather in November and December.
“I simply love the city, regardless the weather. The atmosphere is unique and the people are so friendly! I love Amsterdam. Everyone is free here, or at least seems to be. The city is a huge inspiration to me. The only problem are the bikers, they scare me a little!”
The Canadian soprano, born in Beirut, is a star in the making. Opera News wrote about her: “Canadian Soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s sound is enormously satisfying — a full lirico-spinto soprano with a genuine radiance about it”.
As Violetta (La Traviata) at the Dutch National Opera
The Dutch public can attest to this. In May 2013 El-Khoury made an unexpected and overwhelming debut as Violetta in La Traviata at the National Opera. In May 2014 she stole the hearts of the NTR Saturday Matinee audience with a deeply moving performance of Rusalka in Dvorak’s opera of the same name.
“The Matinee is even better than sinking into a warm bath. The public is so incredibly sympathetic and kind, you can feel their love, which really makes you feel good, feel loved. You feel like … no, this feeling cannot be described. Also the organisers, the rehearsal assistants … The most beautiful moment to me came when the orchestra started to play and our voices blended with the sound of the orchestra for the first time.”
“And then we had James Gaffigan to conduct us …. I have no words for him. He breathed along with us. He was one of us, and stood above us at the same time. But also next to us. This Rusalka has been the highlight of my life thus far. Singing is a privilege, but singing at the Matinee in Amsterdam. I had the time of my life…”
Beirut and Canada
Joyce El-Khoury was born in Beirut and moved to Canada when she was six years old.
“I am a Canadian and I feel at home in Canada, but my soul, my heart, my everything stayed behind in Lebanon. Most of my family, for example, lives there. If my grandparents would not spend half of their time here, and half the time in Lebanon, I would miss them terribly. My heart is Lebanese, and I hope to spend some more time there one day.
“My father had a beautiful voice, but it was my grandfather George who was the famous singer. Well, famous, when he walked down the street people yelled Kyrie Eleison at him. I sang in the chorus as well, it helped me a lot when we first settled in Ottawa. Everything was new there, and I missed Beirut terribly, but singing comforted me.”
“I never thought about making singing my profession, I wanted to be a doctor. Or a nurse. I even worked in a children’s hospital for a while. My parents did not think that was a very good idea, though. “You have such a perfect and beautiful voice, you really need to do something with it” they said. They not only stimulated me, but also helped me to find my path in the manner that suited me. Unconditional love, indeed.”
“I function best under stress, I need to be challenged. I am sort of a workaholic: even on vacation I always take my score with me.”
El-Khoury’s current repertoire includes many classical and less famous roles by composers like Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Language does not seem to play a role for her.
“I have been very lucky: languages, to me, come quite easily. Learning a language almost goes by itself, it is all very natural for me. Maybe because I was raised bilingual (Arabic and French), with English added later.
I have an affinity with languages, and I love to sing in Czech or in Russian. “
“Rusalka is in love, like someone who is in love for the first time. She dreams and believes her dreams are the truth. She is invisible to the prince, nothing more than a wave. She can only be united with him in the foam on the waves, but she wants to be seen too!”
“I am not sure whether the prince loves her…. I think he is fascinated by her. She is a great unknown, a beauty, a mystery. But she does not speak, so he does not know what to think anymore. You may think that is horrible, but you can hardly blame him. She is weird, which scares him a little.”
“Rusalka becomes truly human the moment she forgives. By forgiving she transforms into a human being. I think the opera enables us to study human emotions.”
“There is not a lot of difference between Musetta and Mimi, I think. I have sung both parts, and I love them equally. Musetta may appear more superficial, but she is not. She is just better at hiding her emotions and feelings. To the world she is happy and strong, and a big flirt as well, but inside she is a little bird. She genuinely loves Marcello, and is afraid of being hurt. It all shows in the final scene.”
With Michael Fabiano during rehearsals for La Boheme in Ottawa, El-Khoury sings Mimi
“The most emotional moment in the opera, to me, comes in the second act, when Mimi says: “”Io támo tanto.” My voice always breaks there for a moment.”
“I need to feel something. I need to have a connection with a role, and understand the character. I have to be challenged emotionally. When I do not feel anything, it becomes too mechanical and detached. I also think you need to keep your emotions in check, though, however hard that may be. Otherwise your throat blocks, and you cannot sing.”
Trailer of the Amsterdam production, El-Khoury sings Musetta:
When I am banned to the moon and can only take one opera with me that would be Suor Angelica! For the drama, but also for the music. The music comforts me, and gives me a warm and good feeling. And then there is that beautiful ending, the wonder that everything ends well!”
“This role also brought me where I am now. I was hired to sing Loretta in Gianni Schicchi during the Castleton Festival in 2010, but I was also the understudy for the singer who sang Angelica. She fell ill during opening night, and very gladly I took over. Under the circumstances they reversed the order: first Schicchi and then Angelica. Maestro Lorin Maazel was most helpful.”
“Later Maazel took me to Munich and even to China! I will miss him terribly: he was my mentor, teacher, supporter and friend.”
Final scene from Angelica, Castleton:
“I have learned a lot from Renata Scotto, mainly about body language: the things you do when you not sing. We have worked together in Palm Beach on a Traviata she directed in which I sang the lead. “
“I sang my very first Violetta in 2012 in Wales, then Amsterdam followed. I thought the Amsterdam production was very beautiful. I had watched the DVD many times, and understood the clock straight away, but the business with the couch had to be explained to me. I thought it was a tremendous experience.”
La Traviata from Palm Beach directed by Renata Scotto:
What is your dream role?
“Thaïs! Preferably with the gorgeous costumes they had in Los Angeles. I also love Butterfly. The part lies slightly higher than other Puccini roles, but I think it suits me. I also want to sing all three Tudor queens.”
As Maria Stuarda in Seattle
“I am not sure it will ever happen, but I would love to sing Salome” she adds with hesitation. “Actually, I would love to be a conductor, I love being in charge!”
In march 2015 Chen Reiss appeared on the stage of the National Opera in Amsterdam. She kindly took some time off from her heavy rehearsal schedule to answer my questions.
The evening we meet in the canteen of the National Opera, Chen Reiss is tired, very tired. It was a long day of rehearsals, from 10:30 until 18:00!!! With a break, but nonetheless…
She had arrived in Amsterdam six weeks earlier to study Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and Simon McBurney’s staging requires great physical efforts of the entire cast.
Not easy, especially not if you happen to be a mother as well, travelling with a daughter who is almost two years old. It is impossible to keep up with the daily news this way, which is a blessing, in a way, because most of that news does not exactly cheer Reiss up.
“I am extremely pessimistic and scared. As a Jewish and an Israeli woman I feel less and less at home in Europe. I am deeply worried, and fear everything will go awry. Not a very nice perspective, certainly not for a parent. Fortunately enough I am too busy to listen to the news. I have breakfast at eight, with my daughter, after which rehearsals start. In the evening, when I get home, it is simply too late. I am tired, and often I need to study…”
“I love Mozart with all of my heart: his sacred music perhaps even more than his operas. Those works I love singing above everything else, the music is so beautiful! Full of passion, but stylish and elegant at the same time. Which Mozart roles I love the most? Ilia (Idomeneo), I think, but in fact I love them all equally!”
Chen Reiss reveales her Top 5 Mozart soprano arias:
“Pamina passive? I don’t believe so, on the contrary! She is extremely brave and full of initiative. So much is happening to her. First she is kidnapped, then almost raped. Then her mother tells her to kill her own father. When she refuses she is scorned and cursed. She then escapes rape for a second time… Just when you think not much else could happen to her the man she loves no longer wants to speak to her! She goes to hell and back and gets so desperate she can only think of suicide. The decision to undergo the trials and follow the man she loves to the end was made entirely by herself. She is a hard act to follow!”
Is it eternal love, I ask?
My question makes her laugh out loud. In opera, which love is not eternal, after all?
Reiss finds the Amsterdam production by Simon McBurney truly charming. “It all looks very exciting and beautiful, and in addition I work with fantastic colleagues. And this is the third time I get to fly!
In Vienna I was a very high flying Waldvogel in Siegfried, which not only gave me high anxiety quite a bit but made it hard for me to follow the conductor as well …. In my last Idomeneo production I was lifted into the air for a moment, which was rather fun.
Trailer of the Viennese Idomeneo:
“Do I ever refuse a role? Yes, surely, but only when it does not suit my voice. It is harder to decide which productions you should avoid. Often you do not know the concept until a week before rehearsals start. Then it is too late to refuse. Refusing anyhow is difficult, because you no longer will be booked, especially if you are a young singer.
This also happens to great stars, by the way. Anna Netrebko recently left a production because she could not agree with the director. Apparently it is easier to replace a world famous singer than a director. The director is felt to be the most important figure, and everything revolves around him or her.”
“I was once made to wear a very heavy hat, which physically I could not do. Not even a letter from my doctor helped: I was fired, and the concept remained. Will this ever change? Who knows. Perhaps if people would stop buying tickets?”
Chen Reiss is also very popular with audiences who never go to the opera or to classical concerts. She sang Et Incarnatus Est in 2014 in front of the Pope during the Christmas Eve Mass in the Vatican. One of the papers the next day came up with the following headline: ‘How a Jewish Israeli soprano found holiness in front of the Pope’.
Chen Reiss performing at the Christmas Mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter Basilica.
“It was a special experience, yes. I only met the Pope very briefly, not longer than thirty seconds, but he sent me a long thank you letter afterwards. Really special. It moved me a lot, and gave me a warm feeling. I also believe the Pope genuinely loves music, he knows so much about it!”
“Why I was invited? Two years ago I sang that piece during the Sacred Music Weeks in Vienna, and I believe he heard me there. Or someone told him about me, because shortly afterwards I got the news I was selected to sing during the mass.”
Reiss singing during the Christmas Eve Mass:
Reiss’s discography includes five solo albums, amongst others. One of them is Le Rossignol et la Rose. I tell her how incredibly beautiful and moving I find that CD. She is genuinely happy with the compliment.
“I selected the songs and made the program myself, which is all about love, pain and sadness, but about happiness as well. When I was selecting the program I was happily in love, but during the recording sessions my partner and I broke up. I was devastated, and even thought of giving up entirely, but I did finish the recording. That was the right decision, because the recording sessions had a therapeutic effect on me which was beneficial. They helped me so much, in fact, that I opened up to something new and met my current husband. So things have come full circle. For this reason, the CD is very dear to me.
I would love to record more, which is something I will soon do, in fact: first Bach cantates, followed by more Lieder. Yes, all for Onyx. Such a great company! They are very helpful and sweet, they simply let me do whatever I wanted for the Rossignol disc.
In the future I intend to focus more on concerts and recitals. I have discovered that that is what I love doing the most. I will sing the Sieben frühe Lieder by Berg soon, and then perhaps the Vier Letzte Lieder by Strauss.”
“I love Amsterdam dearly. On my first visit here I sang Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Markus Stenz. He is such an incredibly lovely conductor!
Chen Reiss in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony:
At that time I already wished I could stay a little longer in the city. It is so strikingly beautiful, for me it is the most beautiful city in Europe, perhaps even in the world. There is so much culture too: the Concertgebouw, the museums…. And the people here are very friendly. I enjoy all of that very much.
Le rossignol et la rose
This recital-cd is a fine example of a perfectly put together recital. Like a nightingale and a rose, it is a match made in heaven.
The recital’s motto: “The nightingale has sung throughout the night, making the roses spring up by the sweet sound of her echoing song” introduces a story in five chapters; a story of love, longing, loneliness and sorrow. And humor too, because even in foggy romanticism funny things do occur occasionally.
The title of the CD is taken from Saint Saëns’s vocalise. In this song Reiss presents her full potential on a platter, which is quite something.
‘Le rossignol et la rose’ by Saint-Saens, illustrated with fragments from old movies:
I was particularly moved by ‘Die Nachtigall’ by Krenek, a song I did not know, and would not associate with this composer straight away. The beautiful text is by Karl Kraus, a poet who, according to Krenek, had a great influence on him. Reiss makes you gasp in admiration, her high notes are both impeccable and sweet.
Bellini’s ‘Vanne o rosa fortunata’ is a lovely piece of fluff, but it is impossible not to be moved by ‘La Rosa y el sauce’ by Guastavino. It is a song about a rose which blossomed in the shadow of a willow, but which was plucked by a young girl, leaving the willow to mourn. Reiss grieves with the willow, and so do we.
In ‘Shnei shoshanim’ by Mordechai Zeira Reiss shows the darker side of her voice. She reminds me a little of Nethania Devrath, one of the most famous Israeli sopranos from the sixties, with Victoria de los Angeles not looming far in the background.
Pianist Charles Spencer is truly the saving angel here. He is much more than just an accompanist. Listen to his intro to Krenek’s ‘Die Nachtigall’ or to his pearly notes in Meyerbeer’s ‘Rosenblätter’. BRAVI!
Le Rossignol et la Rose
Purcell, Hahn, Mahler, Meyerbeer, Strauss, Bellini, Guastavino, Berg a.o.
Chen Reiss (soprano), Charles Spencer (piano)
Onyx 4104 • 72’
An unconventional opening of an interview, perhaps, but I had good reasons for it. Our Amsterdam appointment was cancelled twice, leaving Facebook and Skype the only remaining option. Even that way, it took me quite a while to finally get hold of him.
Him being Joseph Calleja, one of the famous tenors of his generation, with a busy current schedule and an even busier future. He was born in Malta, and had turned thirty-five just before our interview in the last week of January 2013.
“January is an outstanding month for tenors,” he laughed. “Mario Lanza, Domingo, my teacher, me…. There must be something special in the January air.”
To settle all disputes: his name is pronounced ‘Kaleja.’ Not the Spanish way, or the Italian or Portuguese way. Well, that is easy for the Dutch to get right then, I say, which makes him laugh again.
Calleja has close ties to the Netherlands. After all, his international career started in this country. At age nineteen (sic!) he sang Leicester in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda for the Nederlandse Reisopera. Quite a feat, with which he impressed a lot of people. His voice was very light and sweet at that time; his high notes supple and pure, almost like Tagliavini.
Calleja as Leicester in Bergamo in 2001:
In 2004, at the age of twenty-six he made his debut with the Dutch National Opera as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. He had already sung the part before, in 2001, at an open air performance in the port of Rotterdam.
He still has a lot of friends from his Dutch period, and even remembers a sentence in Dutch: “eet mijn konijn niet op” (Do not eat my rabbit),
He laughs heartily at this. The anecdote is well known in the meantime, but he does not mind repeating it once more. He was seeing a Dutch girl at the time. When he visited her, he told her little sister that it was a Maltese custom to eat a lot of rabbit. The little girl grabbed her rabbit in shock, exclaiming ” eet mijn konijn niet op!” He has always remembered the phrase since.
Joseph Calleja sings “To the canals of Amsterdam I have pledged my whole heart” at the 2013 rendition of the Grachtenfestival (Canal Festival) accompanied by the Royal Concertgebouworchestra directed by Antonio Pappano:
Nine years ago you told me that of all current tenors the voice of Pavarotti felt closest to yours. You said: “If I were to die tomorrow, and could listen to one voice, the final voice of my life, that would be Pavarotti. He is my biggest favourite, my true idol. There have been, and there are, other big and beautiful voices, but Pavarotti remains number one for me.” Do you still feel the same?
“Yes, I do, in fact, although I have to admit I admire Jussi Björling more and more every time I listen to him. It is very well possible this has something to do with how my own voice develops.”
Your voice is often compared to that of great singers of the past In addition your career develops in an astonishingly rapid tempo. How do you feel about that yourself?
“It is true. It can be a little scary at times, everything happens so fast, which can be a burden. The audience expects you to be in top form every evening, which is impossible because the human voice is no violin. But on the other hand I would never want to miss all these fantastic experiences.”
I was speaking to Marilyn Horne a while back. She encouraged young singers to take their time, and never to rush things.
“I know, but this so difficult nowadays! I believe you do have to rush, but in a clever way. Meaning to study like crazy and work hard, but to be cautious in choosing your repertoire at the same time.”
Coming up the next four months are several radically different roles: Tebaldo in I Capuletti e i Montecchi in Munich, Rodolfo in La Bohème in Chicago, Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera in Frankfurt and Nadir in the Pearl Fishers in Berlin. Not to mention the concert performances of Simon Boccanegra and the Verdi Requiem. How does he switch from the lyrical Nadir to Gustavo who is definitely more dramatical?
“I do not believe you need to sing Gustavo in Ballo differently than Duca in Rigoletto or Manrico in Trovatore. All those roles were written for the same type of tenor. True, the orchestras were smaller then, and the tuning was lower. That does put extra pressure on a tenor nowadays. You have to sing higher and louder than intended. Every singer goes his own path, and you make mistakes on the way, but it is possible to learn from those mistakes.”
“Certainly, I made some mistakes myself. My first La Bohème came too soon, and I have also sung a few other roles too early. But like I said, you learn from that. What helps are a good, solid technique, and good advice.”
Unlike many of his colleagues you don’t mind modern stagings.
“Respect is all I demand. I do my job, a director hopefully does his. I need to trust the director, believe that he knows what he does, and why he is doing it. I leave judging a director to the audience and the critics. Singers are not supposed to do that. We do not have to agree on everything, but we do need to respect each other.”
What if a director wants to put you on stage naked? As a singer you are already vulnerable fully dressed! Would you go that far?
“I would not know, honestly. Luckily nobody has ever asked me to strip, although I did sing a Duca in my boxer shorts once.”
Kidding aside: “if you only did the things you liked, you would be out of work ten out of twelve months. So I only say no when something can harm my voice.”
In January and February 2013 Calleja toured Europe with the program of his CD Be my love – A Tribute to Mario Lanza. Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras; almost all tenors of hat generation idolized Mario Lanza and his movies. But you were not even born yet when he died. How does someone of your age got to know him?
“When I was young I played in a rock band. My uncle felt I had to listen to some good music, so he made me watch all these Lanza movies. That is how my love for opera started. What a fabulous singer! On his own, he had the charisma of four or five tenors. I also have all his CD’s. And I do not care one bit he sang with a microphone.”
“I have nothing against crossovers, especially not when done right. What does crossover even mean? For me it means having fun, making good music. I am not Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams. I am and will always remain an opera singer. But when done the way the three tenors did it, for example, I love it!”
“Why does an opera house have to be the only place where opera is sung? In the past men in Italy, and in Malta too, used to bring serenades by singing opera arias. The women stood in their open windows, like in a opera box. That is the way my teacher met his wife. Were not opera singers hundred years ago the pop singers of now? Well, on Malta they certainly were!”
I tell him I dreamt the night before our interview that we met in the lobby of a large hotel. He was sitting there with all his brothers and sisters and told me he would start to include folk songs in his recitals. Does he actually sing folk music?
“Our folk music is not really suitable for a trained tenor voice. Malta is like Sardinia: the music is raw. Italian music is part of our folk tradition. We grew up in the Italian tradition, the canzoni form part of our culture.”
Which languages do you speak at home? English, Italian of Maltese?
“Hahaha. All of them, and all of them together at the same time!”
What do you find harder? Singing opera, or touring with a recital?
“Touring, without a doubt. You pack your luggage, unpack it, go on stage and sing, go to sleep and pack your stuff again. Sometimes you can rest for a few days in between concerts, but often you are supposed to give interviews, or show up for some event, or sing something. All of that is very tiring.”
Does that explain why I had to wait so long for my interview?
”Hahahahahaaa! I am not commenting on that!”
Finally the day of the much-anticipated recital by star tenor Jonas Kaufmann was there.
Why did Amsterdam have to wait for him so long? Too expensive, too busy, too ….? A lot of speculating went on before the concert, caused by his recent cancellations. But Kaufmann came, saw, and conquered. Star soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and the energetic Residentie Orkest led by Jochen Rieder contributed to the huge success of the afternoon as well.
Expectations were high, and the hall was filled with fans, buzzing with excitement from the start. In spite of this, Kaufmann made a cautious start, visibly suffering from nerves.
As much as I loved his singing (very much, in fact), in his first aria ‘Celeste Aida’ Kaufmann had problems winning me over. Part of the problem had to do with his volume. Even with the sympathetic and delicate back-up by the Residentie Orkest he was difficult to hear at times from my seat. His pianissimi and mezza voce phrases were breathtaking, as beautiful as his diminuendo at the end of the aria, but did he make a convincing warrior? Not to me.
‘La vita è inferno all’infelice’ from La Forza del Destino almost went off the rails because of the lethargic tempi. Kaufmann sang heavenly, but taken as slow as this there was hardly any tension, and the fluctuations of the voice made a quasi-artistic impression. Did this matter? No, not really, but with better tempi perfection could have been achieved.
I do not know if Eva-Maria Westbroek ever sang ‘Tu che le vanità’ from Don Carlo before, but on Sunday it sounded like she had sung little else but Elisabetta her entire life. Completely immersed in the scene, she sang as if her life depended on it, flinging the aria into the hall. What an actress!
Westbroek’s emotions dominated the love duet from Otello. Thanks to her ‘Gia nella notte densa’ became the undeniable highpoint of the first half of the concert. Both singers were at their most lyrical and genuine here, treating the audience to a classic love scene that would not be out of a place in an old Hollywood classic. Involuntarily, I had to think of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and those moments of deceiving stillness before the storm.
Kaufmann will add Otello to his repertoire in a few days, and people await it like a new Star Wars movie. Personally I still have doubts which Kaufmann could not erase on Sunday. He is much more the insecure and soft lover than the ruthless warrior. But perhaps I am wrong and he will give us an Otello that will even surpass Domingo’s portrayal?
I have no complaints whatsoever about the second half of the concert, not even a quibble. Wagner and his Walküre are familiar grounds for both singers who thoroughly understand Siegmund and Sieglinde. I honestly cannot think of another pair of singers who could do what they did. Everything was there: fear, resistance, and predominantly love, a lot of love. Perfect beauty is the only way to describe it.
The orchestra also sounded much more intense after intermission. Wagner sounded much closer to them than Verdi, I felt. In particular the Rienzi-overture, performed with great panache and drive was spectacular.
There was room for a real rarity on the program as well (bravo for that!), the Preludio that Verdi supposedly composed as an overture for Otello. This piece was recorded for CD by Riccardo Chailly, but the authenticity of it has been questioned. Rightly so. It is truly a miserable thing. Besides the Jago-motive you recognize parts of the ‘Esultate’ in it too. I did enjoy hearing it nevertheless, mainly for the great enthusiasm the orchestra played it with.
This was obviously not the first time Kaufmann and Jochen Rieder performed together. Their interaction on stage was affectionate and companionable, and they supported and supplemented each other well. Very moving to see.
The ovations at the end of the concert did not seem to end. People were hoping for an encore, which did not come. Personally I would have loved to hear more too, but both singers were obviously tired, and the program already was very heavy. Besides, what on earth could you sing as an encore after the final scene of the first act of Walküre?
As Heinrich Heine supposedly once said: “When the end of the world comes make your way to the Netherlands. Everything happens fifty years later there.” Probably nothing more than a (witty) bon mot, but “se non è vero, è ben trovato”……
Fact is we do tend to remain on the sidelines waiting to see what happens in foreign opera houses. These houses have programmed many forgotten or rarely performed operas like Król Roger long before we did. Now Giacomo Meyerbeer finally has been (re)discovered abroad, we can cherish the hope the Master of Grand Opéra will soon frequent our opera houses as well. France, Great Britain, Belgium and Germany have preceded us. In Germany one can even speak of a genuine ‘Meyerbeer revival.’
Hopefully the wait will not be as long as in Paris, where fans of the composer had to wait for twelve years for their next ‘Meyerbeer’ after Les Huguenots. If it does take that long, trips abroad will be the only option, something Meyerbeer enthousiasts have been doing for years.
Personally, I jumped at the first opportunity, and travelled to the Aalto-Theater in Essen, where in April and May 2017 an unforgettable production of Le Prophète took place.
After Robert le Diable and Les Huguenots, Le Prophète was the third Meyerbeer setting of a libretto by Eugène Scribe. Scribe based his story of (religious) fanaticism, sectarianism and abuse of power loosely on the life story of the Dutch Anabaptist John of Leiden, adding the necessary romantic entanglements and amorous adventures.
Le Prophete Jan_van_Leiden_by_Aldegrever
Scribe got his inspiration from two novels by Carl Franz van der Velde, ‘Die Wiedertäufer’ and ‘Die Lichtensteiner’. From the latter stems the character of Fidés, Jean’s mother. This role, created by the famous mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, made the mother-son relationship one of the most important themes of the opera.
In the opera Fidés is depicted as a strong woman, who counterbalances Jean’s megalomania very well. She was brought to life superbly by Marianne Cornetti.
The American mezzo has a big, booming voice, able to move from low to high notes and back down again without problems. With her immense involvement she conveys her deepest feelings to the audience. I don’t know how Pauline Viardot sounded, but I have little doubt Cornetti approaches that ideal as close as possible.
Cornetti moved me to tears in “Ah, mon fils, sois béni!”, the scene in the second act where she finds out her son spares her life by handing over his beloved to Oberthal. Her “Ô prêtres de Baal” did not leave me unmoved either.
We know John Osborne mainly from his belcanto roles, but his voice has developed a lot in the direction of French heroic roles. Who does not remember his formidable Benvenuto Cellini in Amsterdam?
I have heard singers like Gedda and Domingo sing Jean, both fantastic in different ways, but Osborn outdid both of them. He combined his wonderful and pure height with the intensity of Domingo, and sang with the musicality and the intelligence his two predecessors were so famous for. To give the final performance a little extra oomph, Osborn treated his audience to a couple of added high notes, which were received with much gratitude.
This was the first time I heard Lynette Tapia live, and I must admit she impressed me a lot. Her voice is not exactly big, which might cause problems in larger opera houses, but in Essen she could give the role of Berthe everything it needs.
‘Voici le souterraine’. Lynette Tapi, Marianne Cornetti & John Osborn
The way Tapia coloured her voice in order to project all her different moods was just as beautiful as her coloratura. She was so courageous in “Voici le souterraine” that it was hard to believe this was the same woman who at the start of the opera was all joy because she was going to marry her beloved. Or how firm she sounded when she realised her beloved Jean and the hated prophet were one and the same person!
The three Anabaptists were excellently cast with Albrecht Kludszuweit, Pierre Doyen and Tijl Faveyts. I am amazed a bass with the exceptional qualities of Faveyts does not sing in all the big opera houses.
The staging by Vincent Boussard did not bother me. No psychologizing, no multiple layers or difficult to understand symbols. With this topic, moving the opera to a caliphate would have been an easy way out, saving Boussard a lot of trouble, but luckily he stayed faithful to the libretto. The ballet was a drag, but at least it was well integrated into the total. The lighting designed by Guido Levi was simply breathtaking, with images that looked like paintings. The videos in the background formed a (at times very moving) background that did not distract from the music.
John Osborn, Lynette Tapia, Marianne Cornetti, Karel Ludvik, Albrecht Kludszuweit, Pierre Doyen, Tijl Faveyts
Opernchor, Extrachor und Kinderchor des Aalto-Theaters
Essener Philharmoniker under the direction of Giuliano Carella
Staging: Vincent Boussard
Op 24 december 2011 werd het Israel Philharmonic Orchestra vijfenzeventig jaar oud. Het verjaardagsfeest werd uitbundig gevierd met een concert waar je alleen maar van kan watertanden. De feestelijkheden vonden plaats in het Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv, een meer dan een prachtige locatie gesitueerd in de oude haven van de stad
Allereerst was er Zubin Mehta. De van oorsprong Indiase dirigent heeft zijn hart en ziel aan het orkest heeft verpand en als dank werd hij in 1981 door het orkest met “levenslang” beloond als hun artistiek directeur. Zijn uitvoering van de achtste symfonie van Beethoven stond als een huis, maar de bijdragen van de solisten hebben het puur orkestrale overschaduwd.
Evgeny Kissin schitterde in het eerste piano concert van Chopin. De klank was onmiskenbaar Pools, de romantiek volop aanwezig en de toeschouwers hadden tranen in hun ogen. En ik, gezeten op mijn gemakkelijke bank ik Amsterdam vond het beeld verdacht wazig worden.
De beide violisten, Julian Rachlin en Vadim Repin waren op hun eigen manier geniaal en aan elkaar gewaagd. Tegenover Rachlins een beetje dik aangezette, volbloed romantische klank stond een slanke toon van Repin. Nu is de door Repin gespeelde Poème van Chausson van een iets ander kaliber dan Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso van Saint-Saëns, maar de Sarabande uit de tweede Partita van Bach was in Rachlins handen als was zo kneedbaar.
En dan is er de documentaire, over de beginjaren van het orkest. Wat je te zien krijgt is van een onschatbare waarde. Bronisław Huberman en zijn idealistisch plan, waarmee hij niet alleen één van de beste orkestra’s ter wereld heeft gecreëerd maar ook honderden levens heeft gered. Arturo Toscanini in actie. Jonge Bernstein spelend voor het jonge leger. Ontroerende familieverhalen…..
Ik denk niet dat de documentaire ooit op onze TV komt. Ga naar de winkel en koop de dvd. Ga er rustig voor zitten, neem er de tijd voor, geniet er van en laat je ontroeren.
Israel Philharmonic at 75
Solisten: Julian Rachlin, Vadim Repin (viool), Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Werken van Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Chausson en Saint-Saëns
Euroarts 2059094 • 95’(concert) + 52’(documentaire)
Eén van de mooiste opnamen van het Sinfonia Concertante van Mozart, met Itzhak Perlman en Pinchas Zukerma werd opgenomen tijdens het Huberman Festival in 1982. Het Israel Philharmonic staat onder leiding van Zubin Mehta.
The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra turned 75 years old on december 24, 2011. The anniversary was celebrated abundantly with a concert that was enough to make anyone’s mouth water. The festivities took place in Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv, an exceptionally beautiful location situated in the old port of the city.
First of all, there was Zubin Mehta. The conductor of Indian origin has devoted heart and soul to the orchestra, for which he was rewarded by being named Music Director for Life in 1981. His performance of Beethoven’s Eighth was rock solid, but the contributions of the soloists surpassed the orchestral virtuosity.
Evgeny Kissin was brilliant in Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. The sound, unmistakably Polish and highly romantic brought the audience to tears. As for me, on my comfortable couch in Amsterdam, my TV screen got suspiciously hazy.
Both violinists, Julian Rachlin and Vadim Repin were genial in their own way, and a match for each other. In contrast to Rachlin’s slightly emphatic, full-blooded, romantic sound, Repin’s tone was more transparent. I need to add that Chausson’s Poème played by Repin is in a different league than Saint-Saëns‘ Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, but the Sarabande from Bach’s second Partita was as wax in Rachlin’s hands.
In addition there is a documentary on the early years of the orchestra. What we get to see here is invaluable. Bronisław Huberman and his idealistic plan, with which he not only created one of the greatest orchestras in the world but saved hundreds of lives as well. Arturo Toscanini in action. A young Bernstein performing for the young army. Moving family histories….
I doubt this documentary will ever be shown on Dutch TV. So go to the store and buy the dvd. Put your feet up, take the time for it, enjoy, and be moved.
Time: early sixties. The war not yet forgotten, perhaps, but definitely over. It is possible to be happy again, and enjoy life.
Amongst the passengers on the ocean liner is a German diplomat, on his way to Brazil with his wife Lisa to occupy an important diplomatic position. Suddenly, a strange woman appears and confronts Lisa with her past. Completely shattered, Lisa feels forced to confess her past to her husband. She was an active SS member, and worked as an Aufseherin in Auschwitz. The strange woman reminds her of Martha, a Polish prisoner whose death she thinks she is responsible for.
Whether the strange woman really is Martha, or guilt makes Lisa imagine it remains uncertain. In her mind Lisa returns to the Hölle and relives the events of the past.
The Russian libretto (author: Alexander Medvedev) is based on an autobiographical novella by the Polish author Zofia Posmysz. Posmysz wrote her – partly fictional – meeting with her former Aufseherin in the “I” form, but from the perspective of the guard.
Weinberg composed the opera in 1968, when antisemitism in Poland and Russia again was at its height. This might have been the main reason the opera received its premiere performance only in 2006, in concert form.
The stage premiere took place in Bregenz in 2010 in an outstanding production by David Pountney. Together with set designer Johan Engels he had created a gigantic ship, with the action taking place on two levels. Present events took place on the top deck, where white and blue (heaven?) were the predominant colours. The dark past was consigned to the lowest levels of the ship, like the subconscious.
Most of the opera is sung in German and Russian, but Martha sings her two big arias in Polish. We also briefly hear Czech, French and Greek.
Nothing in the opera leaves you cold, but the emotional highpoint for me is the moment Bach’s Chaconne in D is played instead of the Waltz ordered by the camp commander, with which Tadeusz (Martha’s fiance) seals his faith.
Teodor Currentzis has never been my favorite conductor, but he surpasses himself here. I had never heard him conduct with so much competence and passion.
Every role (and there are many!) is sung admirably. Elena Kelessidi is a most moving Martha. Artur Rucinski’s Tadeusz shows why he has made it to the top list of baritones. Svetlana Doneva (Katja) and Roberto Saccà (Walter) also manage to impress me.
But they all pale in comparison to Michelle Breedt. Her perfectly used voice has every human feeling in it. Love, fear, superiority or damaged ego, she is able to depict all of them equally. For her role as Lisa alone she definitely deserves an Oscar!
English translation: Remko Jas
Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski, Svetlana Doneva a.o.
Wiener Symphoniker conducted by Teodor Currentzis
Director: David Poutney