11 September 2019

September 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Ludwig van Beethoven — A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY, Volume Six (James Brawn, piano; MSR Classics MS 1470)

IN REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven - A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY, Volume 6 (MSR Classics MS 1470)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume Six – Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 in E♭ major (Opus 7), 11 in B♭ major (Opus 22), and 12 in A♭ major (Opus 26) — James Brawn, piano [Recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 16 – 18 December 2018; MSR Classics MS 1470; 1 CD, 73:43; Available from MSR Classics and major music retailers]

The world has changed immeasurably in the 192 years since Ludwig van Beethoven died on 26 March 1827. Were he walking along the streets of Vienna today, he would encounter familiar landmarks, some of them scarred by war, but the spaces and societies that have evolved beyond their façades would little resemble the imperial city that he knew. Only in the Wienerwald, where, like many residents of the Hapsburg capital, he sought refuge from the city’s tumult and found inspiration in unspoiled nature, would Beethoven now rediscover the sights and sounds that so indelibly impacted his work. The vistas of the musical metropolis from Kahlenberg’s summit are much different in 2019 from when Beethoven last viewed them, but, having persevered through nearly two centuries of alternating decadence and deprivation, Vienna retains much of the inimitable essence celebrated by artists as diverse as the city itself.

A similar phenomenon of familiar unfamiliarity can be observed in studying, performing, and recording Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. Their genesis spanning nearly three decades, writing his thirty-two Piano Sonatas occupied Beethoven during a substantial portion of his compositional career, engendering a broad stylistic progress from Classicism learned from Haydn, Salieri, and Mozart to Romanticism prefiguring Schumann and Brahms. Attentive pianists and listeners can perceive in the early Sonatas fundamental modes of expression that Beethoven reworked and refined in his last efforts in the genre, in which a lifetime of challenging boundaries of form and technique begat formidable virtuosity. The stylistic innovations wrought by the composer in the Sonatas, more celebrated in the late scores but sometimes more conspicuous in earlier works, rival the most momentous advancements in Western culture, but, as pianist James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey on MSR Classics avers, recognition of the marvels of the individual Sonatas is enhanced when they are assessed cumulatively, via the work of a musician who fully comprehends and conveys each Sonata’s rightful place among its brethren.

In the Twenty-First Century, when commercial considerations rightly or wrongly seem more prominent than artistic merit in many deliberations concerning the recording of Classical Music, it is exceptionally rare for a pianist to have an opportunity to record a complete traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas—and still rarer for a pianist to genuinely deserve such an opportunity. Laments for the demise of the Classical recording industry having thankfully proved to have been premature, the new millennium has yielded a profusion of recordings, an unfortunate portion of which document performances that in years past would likely have been deemed unworthy of preservation. It is not without justification that some listeners whose acquaintances with Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas were fostered by revered recordings by pianists like Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Kempff complain of a dearth of more recent performances that offer original, legitimate interpretive insights to supplement those exhibited by pianists of the past.

The Beethoven discography suffers from no shortage of idiosyncratic performances of the Piano Sonatas, but, like Schnabel, Kempff, and especially Emil Gilels, whose untimely death regrettably prevented completion of his masterful Beethoven cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, Brawn plays Beethoven Sonatas with imagination and individuality that never diminish the composer’s singular presence in the music. His previous recordings of Beethoven Sonatas evinced the efficacy of Brawn’s unmistakably intimate but commendably unaffected relationship with the music. Like Brawn’s playing of each Sonata, the present disc is both an extraordinary achievement in its own right and an aptly evocative, searching continuation of the pianist’s Beethoven Odyssey.

The sixth volume of A Beethoven Odyssey begins with a performance of Sonata No. 4 in E♭ major (Opus 7) in which both the exuberant youthfulness and the contrasting maturity of the music are intelligently accentuated. Written in November 1796 during a visit to Keglevičov palács in Bratislava, where he taught the dedicatee of Piano Sonata No. 7 and the contemporaneous Piano Concerto No. 1, Ana Luiza Barbara Keglević, the Opus 7 Sonata shares its key with some of Beethoven’s most overtly grandiose music, notably the Third Symphony and the Fifth Piano Concerto.

The composer himself christened Opus 7 as the ‘Grande Sonate’ upon its first publication in October 1797, and the expansive, unapologetically symphonic scale of the the opening Allegro molto e con brio movement here receives deft handling that fully meets the bravura and expressive demands of the music. Nevertheless, not even the most opulent passages draw from Brawn playing that overwhelms the music. In his performances of the three Sonatas on this disc, he never joins the ranks of pianists who succumb to the temptation to over-Romanticize these pieces. Instead, he demonstrates that, though Weber and Wagner are close on the horizon, not only Haydn and Mozart but also Bach and Händel meaningfully influenced the young Beethoven.

Unfailingly faithful to the composer’s instructions, Brawn responds to the ‘con gran espressione’ character of Opus 7’s Largo movement with poignant eloquence. His sapient phrasing, engagingly rhapsodic but allied with rhythmic tautness of almost mathematical precision, facilitates an organic focus on melody that lends his performance an engaging bel canto sensibility. The energetic Allegro is played with galvanizing momentum that transitions coherently to the Poco allegretto e grazioso pace of the closing Rondo. There is a suggestion in the Sonata’s final pages of the ambivalent playfulness found in Mahler’s music. Simultaneously conjuring the spirits of Prospero and Puck, Brawn effectuates an ideal balance between sun and shade—and, vitally, between past and future.

Dedicated to Fürst Lichnowsky, Kammerherr to the imperial court of Franz II, Sonata No. 12 in A♭ major (Opus 26) dates from the turn of the Nineteenth Century, when Beethoven was also completing his First Symphony. Stylistically ambitious, not least in each of the four movements being centered in the home key of A♭ major, the Opus 26 Sonata follows the example of Mozart’s K. 331 Sonata by abandoning an introduction in a fast tempo in favor of a slower movement with variations. In the performance on this disc, Brawn navigates each transformation of the principal subject in Beethoven’s ingeniously-crafted Andante con variazioni with cognizance of the way in which it propels the music’s emotional narrative.

The Sonata’s Allegro molto Scherzo and Trio are played with an appealing lightness, the difficulties of the writing conquered with palpable joy. Beethoven gave Opus 26’s third movement the title ‘Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe’ and created music that communicates feelings of tragic loss that are at once resoundingly universal and devastatingly personal. By allowing the listener to experience details of Beethoven’s writing rather than a pianist’s egotistical executions thereof, the restraint of Brawn’s performance heightens appreciation of the composer’s true intentions. In the Allegro, too, Brawn serves no master other than Beethoven. His delivery of fleet passagework is brilliant, but accurate playing of notes at a brisk speed is only a small part of his artistry. It may seem nonsensical to state that Brawn plays music, not notes, but listeners who have endured pedestrian performances by score-bound pianists can discern the difference.

When preparing his four-movement ‘Grand’ Sonatas for initial publication and when later contemplating his artistic legacy, Beethoven cited Sonata No. 11 in B♭ major (Opus 22) as his favorite among the early Sonatas. Hearing Brawn’s performance of the Sonata would likely have solidified his opinion. The unflinching boldness of the pianist’s approach to the daunting Allegro con brio emphasizes the depths of Beethoven’s exegesis of sonata form. The composer’s inquisitive dismantling, experimenting, and reassembling the sonata according to his own design pervades the movement’s exposition, and Brawn ensures that every bar of the music inhabits its proper place.

Bach, Händel, Mozart, Brahms, and Mahler wielded affinities for writing music that seems to halt the passage of time and dissect the beating hearts of human emotions, but Beethoven possessed a singular ability to imbue strikingly simple, sometimes banal melodies with tremendous expressive potency. That skill was deployed sublimely in the composition of Opus 22’s Adagio con molto espressione movement. A sibling of the slow movements in the Violin Concerto, the Fifth Piano Concerto, and the Ninth Symphony and the ‘Agnus Dei’ in the Missa solemnis, this music beguiles even in an indifferent performance. Brawn’s performance of it is a peer of Maria Callas’s singing of Amina’s ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ in Bellini’s La sonnambula.

The ethos of the Minuetto and Minore of Opus 22 is nearer to that of a Mahler symphonic scherzo than to the formal minuets found in Haydn’s symphonies and chamber music, but, like his Bohemian contemporary Jan Václav Dusík, Beethoven integrated precepts gleaned from the work of his predecessors into his own ideas, producing music that anticipates the Nineteenth Century and recalls the Eighteenth but is unmistakably Beethoven’s work. The Sonata’s Allegretto Rondo also exemplifies the composer’s uncanny faculty for adapting the musical language of the past into his own unique dialect. Brawn’s fluency in the idiom affords uncommon clarity, his playing infusing rejuvenating transparency into music that is often muddled in overzealous performances. Fashioning his performance as a dialogue among the voices of the music’s subjects and countersubjects, Brawn presents Opus 22 not as an esoteric treatise but as a thriving musical organism.

In the first nineteen years of the Twenty-First Century, some musicians, musicologists, and music lovers have posited that the quality and importance of Beethoven’s music have been exaggerated. Admittedly, there have been performances of Beethoven’s music that support this assertion. In the course of James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey to date, the pianist’s astounding technical acumen has accomplished many wonders, one of the most exciting of which is the spontaneity that he imparts in impeccably-rehearsed performances. This is the crucial attribute that too many performances of Beethoven’s music lack. It is possible that the significance of Beethoven’s work has been unnecessarily aggrandized, but the value of A Beethoven Odyssey cannot be overstated. This sixth volume reminds the listener that, 192 years after Beethoven’s death, his music still surprises, stimulates, and satisfies, particularly when played as it is on this disc.

04 September 2019

ARTS IN ACTION: Luck be a Lady - noteworthy rôle début to crown Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM, Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by the artist]Lady of the hour: soprano Othalie Graham, Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by the artist]

Io vorrei in Lady una voce aspa, soffocata, cupa...la voce di Lady vorrei che avesse del diabolico. | I want for the Lady a harsh, throttled, somber voice...I want Lady’s voice to embody the diabolical.

It was with these words, written in a letter to librettist Salvadore Cammarano on 23 November 1848, that Giuseppe Verdi described the qualities that he wanted the voice of the eponymous thane’s consort in his ambitious operatic treatment of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to embody. Rarely in the history of opera can a composer be found to have complained of a singer’s voice being too beautiful and angelic to sing a rôle effectively, but this was the foundation of Verdi’s dissatisfaction with Eugenia Tadolini, the soprano who earned Gaetano Donizetti’s admiration with her creations and, in the cases of first Giovanna Seymour and later the title rôle in Anna Bolena, recreations of leading ladies in his operas and was engaged by Teatro San Carlo to sing Lady Macbeth in the Neapolitan première of Verdi’s Macbeth.

When Macbeth was introduced to the public at Florence’s Teatro della Pergola on 14 March 1847, Lady Macbeth was sung by Florentine soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini, a renowned exponent of dramatic bel canto who had already created the part of Lucrezia Contarini in I due Foscari for Verdi in 1844 and would later be the first Gulnara in Il corsaro. Eighteen years after the opera’s Italian première, Verdi substantially revised Macbeth for a Paris production. His second incarnation of Lady Macbeth was first sung by Amélie Rey-Balla, a soprano whose career is sparsely documented aside from accounts of her acclaimed portrayal of Sélika in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. Prodigiously documented are the formidable demands of Lady Macbeth’s music, before and after the composer’s revisions: rivaling the ferocity of the vocal writing for Abigaille in Nabucco, Verdi’s musical portrait of Lady Macbeth is one of opera’s most intimidating sings.

Indicative of the work’s many difficulties is the fact that, though Il trovatore, Rigoletto, and La traviata were performed in the company’s inaugural 1883 – 1884 Season, Macbeth was not staged by New York’s Metropolitan Opera until the 1958 – 1959 Season, when a production by Carl Ebert served as the vehicle for the house début of soprano Leonie Rysanek. Already celebrated for her portrayals of Wagner and Strauss heroines (and, at the time of her MET début, already heard in New York as Lady Macbeth, courtesy of a 1958 Carnegie Hall concert performance by The Little Orchestra Society), Rysanek shouldered the unenviable task of singing the rôle originally intended for Maria Callas, whose supremacy as Lady Macbeth was established by five performances at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in December 1952—her only performances of the part. In subsequent seasons, Macbeth has been performed slightly more than one hundred times at the MET, whereas La traviata has amassed more than a thousand MET performances since 1883.

Veritable armies of singers have performed rôles like Bizet’s Carmen and Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème at the MET, but the company’s roster of Ladies Macbeth is considerably shorter, its relatively meager ranks including Americans Irene Dalis (the first mezzo-soprano to essay the rôle under the MET’s auspices), Elinor Ross, and Olivia Stapp [regrettably, the exhilarating Lady Macbeth of another American soprano, Marisa Galvany, never graced the MET stage]; the Swede Birgit Nilsson; the Ukrainian Maria Guleghina; and Russia’s Anna Netrebko, who is scheduled to reprise the rôle in the MET’s 2019 – 2020 Season. Also significant is the fact that the MET’s sole Italian Lady Macbeth to date is the inimitable Renata Scotto.

Following a much-anticipated début in the rôle with Toledo Opera in October 2019, Ontario-born soprano Othalie Graham returns to Charlotte for three further performances as Lady Macbeth with Opera Carolina. Previously heard in Charlotte as Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Turandot [reviewed here], Graham is an uncommon singer with a voice that is at once attractive, powerful, and flexible. Her depiction of Turandot, potentially one of opera’s most unidimensional characters, in Opera Carolina’s 2015 production confirmed that she is also a shrewdly intelligent actress who instinctively discerns the touchstones of a characterization in the rôle’s music. She is a performer whose sincerity forms the nucleus of her approach to any rôle. In an instance of felicitous casting, Graham will be partnered in Opera Carolina’s new production of Macbeth by another distinguished singing actor and bona fide Verdian, baritone Mark Rucker. It should not be unusual in 2019 for the leading couple in a Verdi opera to be portrayed by artists of color, but opera companies’ rosters still do not reliably mirror the increasing diversity of opera’s audiences.

ARTS IN ACTION: mezzo-soprano GRACE BUMBRY as Lady Macbeth in Los Angeles Music Center Opera's 1987 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Los Angeles Music Center Opera; image from the Detroit Public Library collection]La luce langue: mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry as Lady Macbeth in Los Angeles Music Center Opera’s 1987 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Los Angeles Music Center Opera; image from the Detroit Public Library collection]

Racial bias in the casting of rôles in Verdi’s operas has been prevalent since the works’ first performances, especially in the name parts in Aida and Otello. Russell Thomas’s 2017 début in the rôle in concert performances with the Atlanta Symphony welcomed an exceptionally rare Otello of color, but, regardless of the suitability of their individual voices for the character’s music, Black sopranos from Leonora Lafayette and Gloria Davy to Jessye Norman and Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez have been encouraged to sing Aida. It is narrow-minded to suggest that casting singers of color as Aida has often been based primarily upon race, but scrutiny of performance annals discloses a worrying—and continuing—pattern. Alzira has been performed too infrequently to engender casting trends, but how often have singers whose appearances reflected the character’s Andean heritage been engaged to sing Alvaro in La forza del destino? Unlike most of her sisters in the Verdi canon, however, Lady Macbeth, unquestionably a Caucasian character, has benefited extensively from the dramatic prowess of singers of color.

Defying prejudice with a triumphant depiction of Lady Macbeth opposite Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Macbeth at the 1964 Salzburger Festspiele, St. Louis-born mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry became the first artist of color to don the Lady’s crown for the Metropolitan Opera when she sang the rôle in a concert performance by MET forces in Newport, Rhode Island, on 17 August 1967. Ultimately, six of Bumbry’s seven MET Ladies were sung in tour performances: only her final MET performance of the rôle, on 4 June 1973, was sung at Lincoln Center. Praised in The Saturday Review for ‘the manner in which she conceives the character’s [in the context of Irving Kolodin’s review, Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo] place in the drama,’ Bumbry exhibited dramatic sensibilities with much in common with Othalie Graham’s artistry.

Also assuming Lady Macbeth’s mantle at the MET in 1973 was one of America’s most gifted Verdians, native New Yorker Martina Arroyo. The vitriolic psychology of the power-hungry Lady could hardly be more different from the good-humored soprano’s natural temperament, but her mastery of the music imparted the necessary duplicity. In nearly three decades with the MET, Arroyo built a repertoire that encompassed parts as diverse as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, virtually all of the Verdi heroines then before the public, rôles in Wagner’s Lohengrin and Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Puccini’s Cio-Cio San, bringing to her interpretations welcome emotional directness. Possessing a voice capable both of delivering florid music credibly and of voicing dramatic rôles like Turandot with the requisite aural impact, Graham perpetuates Arroyo’s legacy.

Remarkably, the Lady Macbeth of Shirley Verrett (1931 - 2010), justifiably cited by many aficionados as one of the preeminent operatic portrayals of the Twentieth Century and documented on disc and film, was heard only once at the MET (15 February 1988). Like Bumbry, Verrett was a mezzo-soprano who possessed vocal range and dramatic versatility that enabled her to diversify her repertoire by singing soprano rôles. Though her MET tenure as Lady Macbeth was unfortunately limited to a single performance, her depiction still casts a long, intimidating shadow. A critic’s description of Verrett’s Leonora in a MET traversal of Donizetti’s La favorita as ‘stupendous in vocalism and amazingly believable in action’ also accurately recounts the essence of her Lady Macbeth.

ARTS IN ACTION: mezzo-soprano SHIRLEY VERRETT as Lady Macbeth (left) and baritone RYAN EDWARDS as Macbeth (right) in Boston Opera Company's 1976 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Boston Opera Company]Fatal mia donna: mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett as Lady Macbeth (left) and baritone Ryan Edwards as Macbeth (right) in Boston Opera Company’s 1976 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Boston Opera Company]

In the context of her depiction of Lady Macbeth garnering appreciation in her homeland, soprano Margaret Tynes, who was educated in and has many ties to North Carolina, was even less fortunate than Verrett. Tynes’s MET tenure consists of only three performances, all of them of the title rôle in Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa in 1974, in which her Laca and Kostelnička were Jon Vickers and Astrid Varnay, who was also an accomplished Lady Macbeth. A pirated recording of a 1972 performance of Macbeth from the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari affirms that Tynes was an imposing, atypically sympathetic Lady Macbeth. Like Verrett, Tynes was an adventurous singer whose solid technical footing enabled her to impress in parts as different as Amaltea in Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto and Strauss’s Salome. Again, the parallel with Othalie Graham is unmistakable.

Latina artists have also excelled as Lady Macbeth, both in and beyond North America. Though none of them enjoyed opportunities to sing the part at the MET, sopranos Nora López, Gilda Cruz-Romo, and Áurea Gomes (1942 - 2018) wielded unique traits in their performances of the rôle. Now primarily familiar only to aficionados, the Chilean López sang Lady Macbeth in a memorable 1961 Rai Torino broadcast performance, sparring excitingly with the Macbeth of Mario Sereni. In nearly fifteen years on the MET roster, her Mexican colleague Cruz-Romo refined her Verdian credentials with interpretations of Violetta in La traviata, Leonora in Il trovatore and La forza del destino, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida, and Desdemona in Otello, in addition to a stunning turn as Odabella in Attila with Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Lady Macbeth, Cruz-Romo was simultaneously vituperative and vulnerable. Rightly lauded with fervor in her native Brazil, Gomes was an impassioned Lady Macbeth, one whose tale was indeed ‘full of sound and fury.’

It is maddening that in 2019, when the indignities endured by people of color on every continent are more visible—and more rectifiable—than ever before, occasional productions of Porgy and Bess are still fêted as increased diversity in opera. Porgy and Bess deserves a place in the standard operatic repertory, but George and Ira Gershwin would surely have agreed that staging their work more frequently should be but a small component of the initiative to make opera more demographically inclusive. As artistic representatives of a wonderfully diverse city, Opera Carolina productions have often featured artists of color in prominent rôles, including the cast of Richard Danielpour’s and Toni Morrison’s Margaret Garner (2006); Lisa Daltirus as Leonora and Denyce Graves as Azucena in Il trovatore (2011); Gordon Hawkins in the title rôle of Nabucco (2014); and Kevin Thompson as Zemfira’s father in Rachmaninov’s Aleko (2016). Casting Mark Rucker and Othalie Graham as the sinister spouses in Macbeth perpetuates the company’s commitment to obliterating prejudices and stereotypes in the Performing Arts. Moreover, Graham’s rôle début as Lady Macbeth—a milestone for the artist, Opera Carolina, and Macbeth—honors a storied past in which ladies of several ethnicities have proclaimed that the only colors that are important in opera are those projected by the voice.

Graham and Rucker are joined in Opera Carolina’s production of Macbeth by Zaikuan Song as Banco, Valentino Buzza as Macduff, and Jonathan Kaufman as Malcolm. Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director James Meena will conduct.


Click here to read a Voix des Arts profile of Othalie Graham.

For more information about Othalie Graham’s career and future engagements, please click here to visit her official website.

Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth opens in Belk Theater at Charlotte’s Blumenthal Performing Arts Center on Thursday, 7 November 2019. Additional performances are scheduled for 9 and 10 November. Click here to learn more about and to purchase tickets for the production.