mon 22/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: John Adams, Dobrinka Tabakova, Wagner | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: John Adams, Dobrinka Tabakova, Wagner

Classical CDs Weekly: John Adams, Dobrinka Tabakova, Wagner

A classic among modern operas, contemporary music from Bulgaria and some slimmed-down Wagner


John Adams: Nixon in China Peter Sellars (director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet/John Adams (Nonesuch)

If, like me, you prefer your opera recordings to be heard and not seen, make an exception for this DVD of Peter Sellars’s remarkably lucid staging of John Adams’s Nixon in China. A work which, as David Nice pointed out when watching the live relay of this production, is probably the only opera composed since Britten’s death to gain a secure place in the repertoire. It’s hard to imagine the piece looking better, the vast Met stage perfectly suited to the work’s quasi-Wagnerian grandeur. It sounds terrific too. A beaming Adams conducts, the players sharing his delight in what remains his most melodically generous score. The faster, more stereotypically minimalist passages chug along as you’d expect, but Adams’s real skill lies in his ability to mould huge paragraphs, which stealthily unfold like Bruckner slow movements. The brooding third act contains the opera’s deepest music.

This production is brilliantly cast – Janis Kelly’s weary Pat Nixon is a joy, never better than when she’s being shown the delights of Beijing at the start of Act 2. And James Maddelena may look a little old to be convincing as Nixon, but the voice is strong and the diction crystal clear. What a pleasure to watch an opera in English and never feel the need to switch on the subtitles. Robert Brubaker’s Mao convinces, and Richard Paul Fink’s Kissinger is a comedic pantomime villain. Be amazed at Adrianne Lobel’s spectacular sets, and marvel at how Sellars directs a drama which becomes far more intimate and introspective than you might expect. No complaints about picture quality – this package contains both Blu-ray and DVD, with the image on the latter format immaculate. The bonus features are generous too, particularly an interview with Sellars.

Watch John Adams and Peter Sellars discuss Nixon in China

more reviews overleaf

Dobrinka Tabakova: String Paths (ECM)

“Dobrinka Tabakova’s music has a particularly 21st-century feel for its broad palette – its free mix of tonality and modality, of folk-music influence and the example of past masters.” ECM’s sleeve note is entirely accurate. We’re innately suspicious of contemporary music which is easy on the ear – as if there’s conflict between accessibility and compositional rigour. Tabakova was born in Bulgaria in 1980, moving to London to study in the early 1990s. Her aim is to write music “that grabs you and has something to say,” citing John Adams and Sofia Gubaidulina among her inspirations. And she’s brilliant at seizing your attention – the angular bass figurations which kick off the Concerto for Cello and Strings, or the accordion-like wheeziness which colours parts of the string trio Insight. The concerto’s last movement is stunning, the combination of vigour and ecstacy recalling Tippett.

Tabakova’s Suite in Old Style for viola and chamber orchestra won’t frighten anyone – an affectionate baroque pastiche which does plumb genuine depths. That it could have been composed at any point during the last century shouldn’t underplay its charms. More striking is a trio for violin, accordion and bass, and an ambitious string septet, Such different paths, dedicated to (and here recorded by) Dutch violinist Janine Jansen. Solo playing throughout is inspired, whether it’s from Maxim Rysanov on viola, Kristine Blaumane on cello, or violinist Roman Mints. ECM’s sound is, as usual, rich and detailed.

Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder, Siegfried-Idyll etc Nina Stemme (soprano), Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard (BIS)

Playing Wagner with an orchestra of 38? The Swedish Chamber Orchestra have already recorded Brahms, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky. Surprisingly, these performances don’t come across as anaemic, thanks to a very vivid, closely-miked recording. It’s as if you’re listening to a highly-accomplished pit orchestra. Particularly successful is the prelude to Die Meistersinger. Dausgaard zips through the piece in eight and a half minutes. And what can sound unbearably pompous and portentous becomes upbeat and joyous, reminding us that this is supposed to be a comic opera. Wagner’s famous stretch of three-part counterpoint bounces along with disarming grace and clarity. Similarly breezy is the overture to The Flying Dutchman, heard in the familiar revision with its soupy coda as well as the slightly terser original. There’s no excess fat, but no absence of drive or drama either.

Less contentious is an affectionate, flowing reading of the sublime Siegfried-Idyll – with a tiny, sparkling contribution from the principal trumpet.  And soprano Nina Stemme’s rapt account of the Wesendonck-Lieder is among the best around. As a bonus, there’s the composer’s own arrangement for violin and orchestra of the closing song, Träume. It’s delicious. A Wagner disc which you’ll want to return to.


Now THERE's a perfect American for you, forget Glass. Knew/felt it was a masterpiece at the UK premiere in Edinburgh all those years ago. Unlike you, though, I'm a little worried about Maddalena's vocal wear and tear. But he always WAS Nixon, so fair enough. The rest is perfect.

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