Denk’s Goldbergs, Cecilia as Norma & The Song of the Earth

(Cecilia Bartoli, as she appeared in the Salzburg Festival production of Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma.”)

Some mighty fine listening for adventurous classical music lovers is coming up this weekend on NEPR, starting on Friday afternoon.  Let’s look ahead briefly to three highlights:

Jeremy Denk’s Goldbergs.  After revelatory recordings from such pianists as Rosalyn Tureck, Charles Rosen, Angela Hewitt, Murray Perahia, András Schiff (a particular favorite), Simone Dinnerstein, and, of course, the two by Glenn Gould, not to mention many others I haven’t heard but would like to, what is left to say about J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations?”  Only as much as there is left to say about, say, Hamlet, which will no doubt be acted out live every day somewhere in the world for centuries to come.  For some oft-flogged works, I greet new entrants into the discography with a hearty “oh no, not another one!”  But not for the Goldbergs, a work that remains both an inviolable monument and tabula rasa like very few others.

The latest Goldbergs comes from a pianist who has catapulted from insider-favorite to near-household name (in classical households, at least) over the past year.  Indeed, Jeremy Denk has been just about everywhere lately: on NPR, in The New Yorker (subscription only), on the latest list of MacArthur Fellows, in WNYC’s studios, and, not least, in my CD player, with his new recording of the Goldbergs (high-quality download avaiable).  Long anticipated, Denk’s new traversal is well worth the wait.  Lively, involving, filled with myriad details (and plenty of ornamentation) but always with an eye on the big picture, Denk’s is my favorite kind of performance:  at once meticulously prepared and utterly spontaneous, as if Denk had just invented the piece whole in one sitting.  Check it out Friday afternoon a few ticks before 1:00.

Cecilia as Norma.  What’s a nice mezzo-soprano like Cecilia Bartoli doing taking on the title role of Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto classic “Norma,” a role associated with such legendary sopranos as Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills?  The glib answer, of course, is “anything she wants.”  More seriously, Bartoli is paying homage both to Giuditta Pasta, the celebrated soprano who created the role in 1831, and to Spanish mezzo Maria Malibran, whom Bartoli channeled on an earlier CD, and who took on “Norma” in a lower version after Bellini’s death.  Based on a new critical performing edition of the “mezzo” version, Bartoli’s new recording of “Norma” was released in conjuction with a staged production at this summer’s Salzburg Festival, a production about which one veteran operaphile had mixed but strong feelings.  Perhaps it’s better, then, simply to hear the music and supply your own inner staging, when NEPR plays the new “Norma” recording in two parts:  Act I at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, after the Houston Grand Opera production of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri , and Act II next Saturday after Houston’s Il trovatore.  With superb contributions from soprano Sumi Jo as Adalgisa and tenor John Osborne as Pollione, backed by (pardon me) scintillating orchestral playing from Orchestra La Scintilla under Giovanni Antonini, and with, of coure, La Bartoli putting every ounce of her musical and theatrical gifts into the challenging title role, this is must-hear radio.

The Song of the Earth.  Even for a reluctant Mahlerphile like me, Gustav Mahler’s otherworldly, valedictory orchestral song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”) haunts me after each encounter as do few other works of art — which is why I keep my encounters rare and well-chosen.  To confront the issues of life and death Mahler depicts with almost painful beauty, especially in the final song, “Abschied” (“Farwell”) can be a life-changing experience, but there’s only so many times one wants one’s life changed.  Whatever your state of life, your next chance to encounter “Das Lied” will be during this Sunday afternoon’s 1:00 broadcast concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, featuring guest conductor Daniel Harding, tenor Michael Schade and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn.  I can’t review the performance for you because, frankly, I haven’t heard it yet.  The concert just took place, and the broadcast audio hasn’t been “turned around” yet, as we say in the biz.   But if you and I are in the right mood, maybe we can “go there” together this Sunday.

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