Betrayal and forgiveness are the themes of this complex opera: Amelia's betrayal of her husband, Renato (she is having an affair with Riccardo. governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony), and the betrayal and assassination of Riccardo by a group of conspirators. The libretto is better integrated than most of Verdi's operas written before Otello and Falstaff. It was originally about an historic incident, the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, but Roman censors, nervous about royal assassinations, forced the absurd relocation of the opera to colonial Boston. The music is prime middle-period Verdi, less spectacular than Il Trovatore, Rigoletto or La Forza del Destino, but it is warmly, richly expressive. It requires and rewards exceptionally good voices, and it gets them in this production. Outstanding work by Muti helps make this one of the best Verdi recordings ever made.–Joe McLellan
Frank Zappa's music is not easy to convert to the stage of the jazz band. Although Zappa's zany compositions have always attracted some of the more adventurous jazz players, the actual jazz content of the tunes is minimal. Italian keyboardist Riccardo Fassi takes his Tankio Band of twelve players plus selected guests through a dozen Zappa charts with mixed results. Curiously, Fassi is most successful when he diverges from the structures of the tunes. When he sticks too closely to the melodies and chords, translating them into Kentonesque big band blasts, the results are less satisfying. The quality of the soloists vary, but guest trumpeter Flavio Boltro, accordionist Antonello Salis, and band member alto saxophonist Sandro Satta dish up some of the most compelling individual work.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 is an incomprehensible wonder of music history, rigorously peculiar, disturbingly new, and timelessly modern. “Wie ein Naturlaut” (Like a sound of nature) is indicated above the first notes of the symphony. It is both the prelude and the key to his symphonic cosmos as a whole. Mahler captures this music of the world, transforms it into a symphony in the old, comprehensive sense of the word and uses it to create his masterpiece of harmony. Composed over the course of just a few months at the beginning of 1888 in Leipzig, this symphony is a true musical awakening. Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig bring Mahler’s sounds of nature to life in a riveting performance.
Zemlinsky's Die Seejungfrau ("The mermaid") is a three-movement symphonic fantasy based on the Hans Andersen story. It was first performed (under the composer's direction) in 1905, and is thus a good deal earlier than the works that have recently excited renewed interest in him—the oneact operas Eine florentinische TragOdie (1916) and Der Zwerg (1921), and the exquisite Lyric Symphony of 1922. In its masterly handling of a large orchestra, however, and of an episodic but firm structure, it is a far from immature piece. Zemlinsky was 34 when he wrote it, after all. If his list of works were not in such a terrible mess—many are unpublished; several, including the present work, were until recently thought to be lost—Die Seejungfrau would count as his Op. 30 or thereabouts.
Bernard Haitink’s 1980 Manfred was the prize of his Concertgebouw/Tchaikovsky symphony cycle. Riccardo Chailly’s 1987 effort with the same orchestra, while very good, doesn’t quite live up to that standard. In both recordings you get the sense that Tchaikovsky composed Manfred expressly for the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The very sound of the ensemble in its own hall conjures the dark, fantasy world described in the music. To this add lively and colorful playing, rich sonority, and utterly impeccable musicianship and you’ve got a uniquely compelling aural experience. Where the performances part company is in Haitink’s embrace of Tchaikovsky’s passionate dramatic ethos, a quality that Chailly, by contrast, tends to shy away from. (Of course, for a truly passionate reading you have to hear Muti’s rendition on EMI.) In his favor Chailly does have Decca’s vivid, high-impact digital recording, which, though having less warmth than the analog Philips production, better conveys the massiveness of the Concertgebouw Hall’s acoustics.
Despite the use of period instruments, including some fine blaring natural horns, this couldn't be called a historically informed performance of Handel's Royal Fireworks Music, HWV 351. The work was not composed for a pleasant onboard afternoon musicale like the Water Music, but instead was part of an event that would have been one of the top items on CNN Headline News for 1749: the celebration of the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, brokered by King George II.