The chat that is "Catch of the Day" continues. On November 27, at noon Hawaiian time, I returned to the studio at Mana'o Radio 91.7 FM in Wailuku Town, Maui, as Paul Janes-Brown's guest on his "Alpha and Omega Show." For the next hour, I tore the cellophane off new recordings, listened in on a track or two, and weighed in with off-the-cuff first impressions. The balance, as usual, tilted to classical, but with surprises. Click on the links for extra information on the albums we checked out, complementary tracks, and background reading.
This time, we began with Guy Klucevsek, that improbable hybrid of crackerjack accordionist and cutting-edge composer, who has collaborated over the decades with everyone from Laurie Anderson to John Zorn. I first cottoned on to Klucevsek (pronounced clue-SEV-ick) a few years ago, when he released the double album Polka from the Fringe (Starkland). If the title conjures up a Saturday night with the Elks in Lake Wobegone, try again. What we have here are two-dozen-plus wildly eclectic takes on the old-time dance form, commissioned from two-dozen-plus maverick composers.
That polka collection was all about Klucevsek the performer. The new album, Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy (likewise from Starkland) puts Klucevsek the composer to the fore, writing for himself and others. On air, we listened to the solo "The Swan and the Vulture," which opens as a spare lament in the reedy timbre of the cor anglais but soon segues into a lantern-lit, gently nostalgic roundelay, the beat shifting constantly yet never ceasing to flow. The swan's presence was very much in evidence, but where Klucevsek hid the vulture in this winning vignette, I cannot say. For an encore, we heard "Haywire Rag (A Waltz)," a piano solo, to which Alan Bern brings the manic, not to say mechanical, drive of a runaway pianola.
The second slot on the show went to In War & Peace – Harmony Through Music, on Erato, a bouquet of baroque arias from the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, the subject of one of my New York Times profiles some years ago. Joyce is currently touring this material internationally with multimedia enhancements, and I'm sure the live event is something to see. In her prime, our self-styled Yankee diva revels in tinsel, from the out-there couture, hair, and makeup she flaunts in the concert hall to the lavish regalia of opera at its grandest. And why not? Yet it is her power of musical expression that always reigns supreme. Our first track, the frantic nightmare vision of "Scenes of horror, scenes of woe," from Handel's "Jephtha," unfolds in strokes as subtle as they are bold, from a shudder of dread to compassionate, tragic composure. For contrast, we chose "Why should men quarrel," from Purcell's "The Indian Queen," a pastoral duet for voice and warbling recorder. As in the Handel, the instrumentals by the baroque ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro, led from the harpsichord by Maxim Emelyanychev, support the singer with a virtuosity and fantasy that match her own. Bravi tutti!
As I mentioned on the air, a splendid place to continue exploring Joyce's art is in videos of her master classes, many available on YouTube. The techniques she shares are born of deep study and rich experience. Not that Joyce's performances require prior homework. (I find the fireworks in Pacini's "Ove t' aggiri, o barbaro," from her album "Stella di Napoli" particularly addictive.)
J.S. Bach's magnum opus known as the Goldberg Variations needs no introduction, but who the heck was Goldberg? A young composer and musician the employ of the supposedly insomniac Count Keyserlingk, a Russian diplomat, who supposedly turned to Bach for music to while away his sleepless nights. Bach delivered a keyboard masterpiece unsurpassed in the Western canon, which it supposedly fell to the decades-younger Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to perform for an audience of one. Beyond the Variations (Bridge) gives a hearing to material from Goldberg's own pen, tidily executed by the early-music group Rebel under the direction of Jürg-Michael Schwarz. On the evidence of the Ciacona from Sonata in B-flat major, DürG 10, and the Alla Siciliana from Sonata in a minor, DürG 11, his stock in trade was what scoffers have called wallpaper music. Expect no renaissance.
Our grand finale was likewise a letdown. The object at hand: Mozart's immortal, death-haunted "Don Giovanni" (Sony Classical), conducted by the Greek maestro Teodor Currentzis. Like countless others before him, Currentzis views the Mozart's three operatic collaborations with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte—the others are "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Così fan tutte"— as a kind of triptych, though the thematic parallels are far from obvious and narrative connections are nonexistent.
Many marveled that Currentzis had chosen to rehearse and record in the Russian backwater of Perm. What was the attraction? Freedom, Currentzis explained: freedom from the commercial pressures and attendant compromises that bedevil the music industry. Fair enough. Currentzis, the singers, and the orchestra and chorus he calls MusicaEterna started at zero, worked punishing hours for as all the many days as it took to achieve, in the words of the promotional materials, "a radical new approach to orchestral virtuosity, as well as fidelity to the score, vocal style, and performance practice." In 2014, they tackled all three of the Da Ponte operas and released "Nozze di Figaro" and "Così" to considerable fanfare. But Currentzis was unhappy with "Don Giovanni"—so much so that he tossed the tapes and started over the following year. .
His ethos here may strike some as a little grandiose, but let's not rush to judgment. I'll confess that the two first installments of the series struck me as musically fussy and dramatically inert. Even so, a recent e-mail from a Norwegian friend with a fine pair of ears gave me high hopes for the finish. "The Currentzis 'Don Giovanni,'" she wrote, "is so passionate and frightening that I did not date to breathe at all." Hoping for just such a thrill, we jumped straight to the terrifying arrival of the Stone Guest at Don Giovanni's banquet, giving the debauched murderer one last chance to mend the fence with God, to no avail. That Currentzis keeps the instrumental and vocal textures unusually transparent here is well and good, but what of the blaze of hellfire, the chill of the graveyard? I heard none of that. Of course, "Don Giovanni" isn't all fire and brimstone. For a radical change of pace, we turned to the duet "La ci darem la mano," that elegant game of cat and mouse involving a rake of high station and a country bumpkin's peasant bride, or in this case, the boy next door and Little Bo-Peep.
P.S. Drilling down.
Since the broadcast, I've listened to the Klucevsek and DiDonato albums in their entirety, with huge pleasure. Both are highly recommended. I've surfed the Don Giovanni some more, too. To these ears, the orchestra comes off as crisp, brisk, and tightly coiled, sometimes to stinging effect. The singers, however, stubbornly smaller than life, get lost in the weeds stylistic niceties, corseting their voices, sketching the drama in the most cursory of strokes. In particular, the fever pitch of the sopranos in the tigress roles of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira seldom spikes higher than a low-grade tizzy. Yet my friend in Norway heard what she heard, and this morning I read this on tumblr from my eminently trustworthy critic friend Jens Laurson from Munich: "The lid flies off, as per usual with Currentzis." Hmm.