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My last visit to São Paulo’s Theatro Municipal had not been very happy and it took me a while to decide to buy a ticket to their new staging of R. Strauss’s Elektra. The cast list finally take my chance once more. I saw Catherine Foster´s Elektra (in concert, full edition) in Berlin only last year and thought it would be interesting to see her in a staged performance. Luck favors the bold – the theatrical aspect of Ms. Foster’s Elektra proved to be a valuable addition to her musical performance. To say the truth, the concert in Berlin showed her in really, really better voice than yesterday, when her soprano sounded on the unfocused side and many high notes were sung below true pitch. But that was her singing – her acting was entirely focused and she never missed one dramatic point. Even not in her best voice, the tone coloring was apt, the word-pointing was clear (the one improvement from Berlin) and everything she sang was a consequence of her gestures and facial expressions. I have the impression that the complex sceneries might have had something to do with that, for Emily Magee (Chrystothemis) found it hard to pierce through the orchestra. Hers is usually a sizeable soprano, but this evening she had to employ a little bit more pressure than usual. It took her a while to find an ideal compromise. Under these circumstances, subtlety was out of the question. She too was scenically convincing and well contrasted to Elektra. Although her mezzo was two sizes smaller than the part and the low notes required some gear change, Natascha Petrinsky took pride of place in what regards intonation and, for a change, it is nice to hear someone who is not fighting with high notes in this part. It is difficult to assess how successful her acting was –  Klytämnestra is here portrayed as some sort of Cruella de Vil, a concept wholeheartedly embrassed by the Austrian mezzo. Is she to blame for a directorial choice? Jürgen Sacher was an efficient Ägysth, fazed by the acoustics as well. Albert Dohmen, even if a bit rusty (and visually old for the role), had the right gravitas for the part – and was the only person on stage whose voice truly blossomed in the auditorium. Maybe I was spoiled by the glamorous casting for minor roles in the Chéreau production , but the opening scene would have benefited from more solid voices and better diction.

The house orchestra is everything but a world class orchestra. Its strings lack tone, to start with. Then brass instruments had their bumpy moments, but, compared to what I heard in their Lohengrin, this evening was far more satisfying. Maybe because conductor Eduardo Strausser has “Strauss” in his name, he could find the right balance between minimally supplying this complex score’s demands and the practicality of the means available. As it was, tempi could be a little bit ponderous, but his concern with structural clarity and phrasing kept the proceedings “legible” and consequent. The Recognition Scene, for instance, was the moment where all these aspects found their best balance, providing the necessary lyricism and clarity.

As much as Patrice Chéreau, director Livia Sabag decided to present Elektra as a family drama and, in order to remove any hint of monumentality, she opted for an Ingmar Berman-ian atmosphere, “Cries and Whispers” a clear inspiration. The set shows a cutaway side view of a mansion house – groundfloor features the servants’ dining room and a storage area where Elektra treasures her mementos of Agamemnon, while the second floor has an entrance hall plus some stretch of the garden under a cloudy sky. The horrors described in the libretto are only hinted at by the scared expression of the servants. For atmosphere, videos are sometimes projected on the set – an image of Elektra buried alive in the opening scene or a corpse being unveiled by a man’s hand during Klytämnestra’s nightmare scene. The closing scene had too much information (most of each unrelated to the Hofmannsthal’s description of subjects overwhelmed by the victory of the legitimate king) and I confess I could not fully understand what was going on. As far as I can recall, maybe the whole encounter with Orest and what ensued only happened in Elektra’s mind, for the last chords show her hanging herself in her little storage room while the corpse of Klytämnestra is shown in a bathtub (until then, it was lying on the floor of the entrance hall, where it had been shown to Ägysth), while the rest of the sceneries and all other characters disappear from sight. If I understood it correctly, this is a clever and insightful idea that could have been developed a little bit more steadily since Orest’s first appearance rather than the coup de thêátre staged this evening.

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Patrice Chéreau was a stage director of legendary status, his final production of R. Strauss’s Elektra a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, the Festival d’ Aix-en-Provence, the Finnish National Opera, the Lindenoper in Berlin and the Liceu in Barcelona. Although many reviewers tend to prefer original productions (especially when the “imported” one is preceded by a video release, as in this case), the whole venture is such a candidate for an entry in the history of operatic performance that audiences all around the world seem eager to see it live in their cities. The Met decided to make it more alluring by featuring Nina Stemme’s Elektra, a role added to her repertoire only last year in Vienna.  The DVD (with Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role) has shown the production for Straussians all over the world, and I can do nothing but confirm Chéreau’s masterly Personenregie (here revived by Vincent Huguet) and his unprejudiced view of these characters, finding palpable feeling in a tragedy that often tends to the monumental.

Nina Stemme declared that she learned from Kristin Scott-Thomas’s performance in the Old Vic’s staging of Sophocles’s Electra. That was a very intelligent exercise – Scott-Thomas built her character not on increasing tension, but around a delicate mix of scorn, frustration, sarcasm and, most importantly, the strife for restoration, for making things right again. Her Electra had to kill the woman Clitemnestra had become to have back her mother as she was and should have always been. Stemme is no Birgit Nilsson – her voice lacks the steel and the flashiness to portray an unrelenting fury. This Elektra is more comfortable wailing for her father, trying to lure her sister and regaining her vulnerability in her encounter with Orest. Although it is big enough a voice, this role exposes its essentially lyric, warm-toned and soft-grained quality. Although she hit her two high c’s commendably, exposed dramatic notes often required some preparation and sounded forced compared to the moments in which she could attack softly and soar in high-lying cantabile. Her low register was often cloudy and the text was not always crispy, but this was offset by the expressive quality of her phrasing. For instance, the last ” duet”  with Chrysothemis never sounded so touching as this evening, both sopranos floating her high registers as Arabella and Zdenka would do some years later: these sisters were finally sisters again.

Adrianne Pieczonka was an intense, solid Chrysothemis. Her high register could sound effortful and, from some point on, raspish, but she refused to let her character sink in the background (as it often happens). My ten or eleven readers know that I do not think that Waltraud Meier has the voice for the role of Klytämnestra, in spite of her dramatic intelligence and pyshcological awareness. However, vocally speaking, this was probably the best performance I’ve heard from her in this role. The low register had a little bit more color than usual – and that makes a lot of difference in this role. I don’t think, however, that those in the Family Circle could really HEAR that. Burkhardt Ulrich  (Aegysth), too, had some trouble piercing through. That was definitely not a problem for Eric Owens’s admirably dark-toned, voluminous, grave yet surprisingly clear-eyed Orest. Minor roles had plenty of enderaing surprises – an intense, firm-toned Fifth Maid from Roberta Alexander (I’ve really cherished the opportunity of finally seeing her live) and Susan Neves showing what dramatic high notes really sound like as the Aufseherin.

Although this was an interesting cast, this performance was really special because of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exemplary conducting. First, he truly understands the musical-dramatic effects and its internal relations. Second, the optimal level of balance (in the orchestra and with his singers) allowed him absolute transparence. While one felt as if reading the score, he or she would also be costantly surprised by how eloquent and powerful this score is. Third, Mr. Salonen never resorted to loudness, abruptness and grandiloquence. The Met orchestra rarely sounded so crystalline and flexible.

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In the season in which Richard Strauss’s 150th birth anniversary is celebrated, the opera house in his birth city offers a treat for Straussians with three of his operas: Die schweigesame Frau, Arabella and Elektra. This first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal is a reprise of Herbert Wernicke’s 1997 production (as seen on video in Christian Thielemann’s DVD from Baden-Baden). As the director himself says, this staging eschews any attempt of characterization other than acting: the stage is practically empty, costumes are basic and there are two stage props (a royal robe in the style of the Bavarian State Opera curtain and, of course, the axe). As it is, with very little to see, one truly pays attention to what the singers are doing. This evening they were basically trying to guess which part of the stage the followspot would light and then jump onto it. Most singers seemed a bit at a loss figuring out what to do, the more gifted in the acting department doing their thing. The various examples of poor blocking suggest that there were not enough rehearsals for the cast to understand what they should do and – more important – why they were doing it. The closing scene looked almost unintentionally comic with all surviving members of Agamemnon’s family raising their arms for no particular reason while trying to make a tragedy face.

In terms of conducting, the performance seemed to be as reticent as it staging. Although the Bavarian State Orchestra produced rich and transparent sounds throughout, the conductor showed himself particularly reluctant in terms of pulse and forward movement. This libretto and this score abound in text and music that should simply erupt into sound. This evening, however, no firework in Strauss’s powerful score caught you by surprise: one could see the gunpowder being lighted, then count one, two and three to finally see the effect actually happen. On saying this, I do not mean that every performance of Elektra should sound like Georg Solti’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. On the contrary, by saying this, I mean the understanding of the musical-dramatic structural coherence that focus all recurrence of motives in their appropriate theatrical purpose. As it was, at some point, when the proceedings actually required some impact, Maestro Fisch finally forced his hand and brought about a brassy, unsubtle but not truly expressive sound in his otherwise excellent orchestra. To be honest, this performance’s best moment were invariably the more lyric passages (such as the Recognition Scene), when the beauty of the orchestral sound and the conductor’s consideration to his cast invariably paid off.

Although Evelyn Herlitzius took some time to warm up and, even then, she understandably shortened the difficult high c’s, she remains unparalleled in clarity of diction, understanding of the libretto and stamina. Although my memory of her 2011 performances in Berlin shows her then in more exuberant vocal health, I found that this industrious soprano proved to have never ceased to improve her singing in this role. This evening, I found her less prone to squalling than I would expect. Many high notes were roundly and goldenly sung and, to her own risk, she tried to produce softer dynamics in some dangerous passage, not always very successfully, truth be said. Her Chrysothemis was Adrianne Pierczonka, who was occasionally fazed by long high-lying phrases. The Canadian soprano, however, sang with fine projection, crispy delivery of the text and animation. Compared to her performances in Berlin under Marek Janowski, Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra sounded marginally more comfortable in her low notes, but still uncongenial in a role that requires an entirely different voice, I am afraid. Even her intelligence and insight cannot hide the contre-emploi (as the French would say). As much as I respect her artistry, I still believe Strauss wrote the low-lying part for a reason. Günther Groissböck was a dark, firm-toned Orest, somewhat stiff at times, but it seems that thi is what the production expected from him. Among the minor roles, Okka von der Damerau (as always) called attention with her finally focused and powerful singing.

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The second item in the RSB’s Strauss opera program this week, a concert performance of Elektra, showed Marek Janowski in his element: absolute structural clarity, understanding of the score’s graphic orchestral effects, a forward-moving approach to tempo that avoided unnecessary ponderousness and the right decision making in what regarded balance between singers and orchestra. This could only work because of the RBS’s extreme affinity with this piece: all musicians were fully integrated in the dramatic action and were ready to try different sounds, not to mention that the harsh and aggressive sound picture of Elektra comes more readily to this orchestra than the crystalline kaleidoscope in Daphne.

Casting too proved to be very effective, even when it was not ideal. Catherine Foster’s performance in the title role has to be considered with the fact that she has agreed to sing her part having an orchestra on stage and without cuts usually adopted to help singers in the most demanding passages. There has only been one perfect Elektra – and that was Birgit Nilsson – all the other singers fall in two groups: those who manage to get to the end of the opera singing something similar to what Strauss wrote and those who don’t. Ms. Foster fits in the first group. She has clear advantages: her basic tone is clear, youthful and spontaneous, she can lighten her voice for curvier phrases and to float mezza voce now and then and she proved capable of producing some very loud acuti in climactic passages. Although she manages her resources relatively well, there are moments when she is understandably tired, most notably in the final scene. Then she can sound fluttery, strained and brittle. But there is never the feeling that she “is not going to make it”. Her performance has strong irony, intelligence, vulnerability and a certain provocativeness. When this Elektra shows her soft side (as in the Recognition Scene), this sounds like a natural consequence. The problem remains that Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is doomed from the start – there cannot be a sense that she is going to survive this. And Catherine Foster is somehow too self-possessed and too ready to soften to ultimately deal with the escalating paroxysms leading to the final exhaustion in the end of the opera. If I had to point out a drawback in this performance, however, this would be less than crispy declamation, making some of Elektra’s vituperation generalized and unvaried.

Camilla Nylund’s velvety soprano offered a nice contrast for Chrysothemis. She dealt with the testingly high tessitura without saturating the picture with strident high notes and blended well with her Elektra towards the end of the opera. A beautiful performance. I have never warmed to Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra and hearing her live only confirmed my impression that she lacks resonance in this lower role, often resorts to speaking voice and is sometimes inaudible. Her understanding of the psychology of this role is very keen and more believable than the caricature put on by some exponents of this part. Günther Groissöck was a dark-toned, resonant Orest, and the role of Ägysth was glamorously cast with Stephen Gould, who could sing all his notes over a loud orchestra. Small roles were all of them well taken, but Gala El Hadidi (Second Maid) and Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Third Maid) deserve special mention.

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Although some may dislike Georg Solti’s overkilling conducting in his studio recording of R. Strauss’s Elektra, every Straussian cherishes Birgit Nilsson’s superpowerful performance in the title role, in which she sounds unfazed by the role’s  impossible demands. Live in the theater, however, the experience is usually quite different: one is often more concerned with the singer’s survival rather than with Musikdrama. I am glad to report that this is not the case with Evelyn Herlitzius. I know this German soprano awakens controversy whenever it appears in a cast list: it is a hoch dramatisch voice, but prone to squalliness and not entirely adept in flowing legato and shading. However, few other singers these days (the name of Irene Théorin comes to my mind when I have to think of someone else) are able to supply the excitement of a truly big voice over a very loud orchestra without effort as she does. After some very negative reviews of her Ortrud in Bayreuth, I am glad to see that this Elektra means a step ahead in her career.

First of all, although tone-colouring and shading is not Herlitzius’s main asset, in a role in which most singers are just trying to cope with,  she has enough leeway to make something out of it. And in comparison, she can’t help sounding more interesting than most. Her clear diction, her expert understanding of the text and the instinct for the right inflection makes her particularly convincing in the most difficult declamatory passages. One can really hear in her voice when she is being ironic, vulnerable or just rightaway aggressive. It is even more praiseworthy that she has been working hard on her technique – I found her more willing to keep a melodic line when necessary, more keen on shading her tone or trying softer sounds than ever. She still works really hard for that – and one can hear it – but she is really a trouper here:  she never refused to give each particular moment its right “atmosphere”. In the Recognition Scene, for example, although the tone could seem a bit grey, she did scale down, never attacked any note too strongly and now and then achieved something of a mezza voce. Was it perfect? Probably not – but it was effective. And other than Nilsson, who could be called “perfect” in this role? To make things better, her stage presence was magnetic, even more telling for her looking (and also sounding) young in a role usually made to sound more mature in dramatic sopranos’ voices and bulk. And, last but not last, Herlitzius knows how to play her trump card – when she unleashed her stentorian acuti, the physical “presence” of these notes in the auditorium was an exciting experience in itself.

Emma Vetter’s Chrysothemis too is an improvement from what I’ve heard from her in Stockholm. She still needs to work on her projection in her middle and low register, but she seems less coy and a bit more able to keep intensity in her phrasing. I wonder if the role is proper to her temper at all, but she is definitely finding her way in this jugendlich dramatisch role.  Although Renate Behle had been often called a pushed-up mezzo while she sang Wagnerian soprano roles, I wonder how much of a mezzo she actually is.  For a veteran, her voice is still finely focused and even young sounding in its brightness. She only betrays her maturity in failing to support her sustained high g’s.  While she is able to keep focus down to the lower end of her range, she does not have by nature lots of resonance there, what is always frustrating when the role is Klytämnestra. It is most curious that, even if one could hear the souffleur cueing her, her performance was spontaneous yet subtly shaded. It just did not match Herlitzius’s larger-scaled contribution. Both men were properly cast – Reiner Goldberg, as always, is a efficient, firm-toned Ägysth and, although Hanno Müller-Brachmann hams a lot as Orest, his uniquely dark and bright bass-baritone is taylor-made for the role.

Conductor Johannes Debus has a very clear notion of what a Straussian orchestral sound is – the Staatskapelle Berlin produced gleaming, rich sounds that never overwhelmed singers on stage. The way woodwind had pride of place and blended with brass in Straussian kaleidoscopic orchestration deserves mention too.  However, the beautifully transparent sonic frame failed to produce a coherent structural image. Although one could hear everything, the individual elements of Richard Strauss’s complex score did not seem to have a lot of… individuality, as if one still need to press the “sharpness” button on a TV set.

As for Dieter Dorn’s old, old, old staging, there is nothing else to be said. Herlitzius seemed to find a new life in it and interacted very precisely with Renate Behle in their scene, while Emma Vetter did not seem really comfortable with playing intensity – as mentioned-above, Müller-Brachmann desperately needs the director here. And, if I may suggest something as disrespectful as that, if the Staatsoper really wants to use this production again, do we really have to live with the Life-of-Brian costumes? Especially when the men had modern shoes on their feet?!

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If Vittorio Gnecchi’s Cassandra does ring a bell in your mind, it is because of the famous article Telepatia musicale in which Giovanni Tebaldini suggests by means of musical examples that Richard Strauss either copied or had a transalpine case of coincidental inspiration with the Italian composer who premièred his opera a couple of years before the première of Elektra in Dresden. I had never heard Cassandra before this evening and the first bar already shows the famous motive associated to Agamemnon in Strauss’s opera. And this is only the first of a series of similarities. In any case, comparison between the two works only show that, if Strauss indeed “borrowed” some motives from Gnecchi, the Bavarian composer’s superior usage of them should have been reason for Gnecchi to be proud. As it is, Cassandra sounds like Turandot with a bold harmonic twist. The canzonetta-style of its melodies sandwiched between dissonant chords is something that requires some adaptation, but the work is certainly atmospheric and the orchestration is imaginative. It is curious, however, that the title role is more or less unimportant in the plot, even if it has a big scene before the opera abruptly ends.

Donald Runnicles could find the right balance between Italianate and German qualities in the work and provided beautiful sounds throughout. In the cast, Markus Brück stands out in a powerfully and richly sung account not only of the role of Egisto but also in the prologue (replacing an ailing Nathan De’Shon Myers). Takesha Meshé Kizart’s smoky soprano is a bit on the light side for Clitennestra, but she certainly did not seem fazed by what is required from her, producing some exciting chest voice in her low register throughout. Gaston Rivero is too light-toned for Agamennone, but sang firmly and securely in a tricky tessitura. Julia Benzinger could also do with a more dramatic voice. These singers suggested rather efficiency than thrill, and the results were finally quite unexciting, but I am afraid that the score itself is also to blame.

After the intermission, Donald Runnicles proved again that he is a most reliable Straussian, ensuring ideal balance in his orchestra and helping his singers by keeping his forces under the leash without losing tonal quality. The transparent reading was musically extremely rewarding and, if the cast allowed him a bit more power, it could be a quite gripping experience. As it was, the final impression was of sensitivity and stylishness. And the house orchestra followed the conductor in an exemplary account of this difficult music.

In the title role Eva Johansson could figure as an example of a long list of what-not-to-do in a voice lesson – her soprano lacks harmonics in her entire range, her intonation is erratic, there is no legato to speak of, the low register is unsupported, the high notes are pushed – but still I have to confess I found her flawed performance quite touching. If I may borrow a concept from La Cieca’s Parterre Box, this would be  “emotional journey”. Her underwhelming Elektra seemed more humane in her faltering expression of rage, a more believable sister to Chrysothemis. Her Recognition Scene finally produced the right effect for the wrong reasons – the imperfect attempt to produce a lyric line (topped by a praiseworthy intent to produce mezza voce whenever this was required) was itself the sound image of Elektra’s ruined beauty. All this aided by an engaged stage performance made me forgive the never-ending list of drawbacks, but I wonder how long she will be able to tackle this repertoire in such a reckless manner. Manuela Uhl seemed to be in an off day – the voice refused to flow, sounded shrill in its higher reaches and failed to pierce elsewhere. Julia Juon is an experienced Klytämnestra, her mezzo still pleasant and rich, but spacious low notes were not really there. Ernestine Schumann-Heink was in her prime when she sang the role in the Dresden première and I wonder why opera houses believe that this role should be cast exclusively by veterans. I really dream of listening to it by a large, full, warm voice. Burkhard Ulrich was a firm-toned Aegisth, but Stephen Bronk lost a bit steam in the middle of his performance. Katarina Bradic’s First Maid and Ulrike Helzel’s Third Maid are worthy of mention.

Director Kirsten Harms uses the same set for both operas – and I don’t need to describe it, for it looks like almost every set designed for R. Strauss’s Elektra. The same goes for costumes. It seems that the axe is very important for her, because Klytämnestra had to carry it throughout both operas. It is unintentionally funny when Cassandra says that she foresees a murder that very day as Clitennestra makes a what-is-she-talking-about?-face while greeting her husband with that enormous axe in her hand. As I use to say, Mrs. Harms has a problem with third acts and I thought that, since there was no third act today, she could feel a bit more confident about her directing. But there is always a last scene – in Elektra, for example, she found it important to have some ghost girls perform a ballet around Elektra. Maybe they were remains of a production of an old staging of Adam’s Giselle who were still bound by contract to the Deutsche Oper.

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If one had to create a production of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 15 minutes, it would probably look like  Dieter Dorn’s 1994 production for the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Grey geometrical walls – check, sacrificial instruments – check, robes and veils – check. One could miss a damaged statue of Agamemnon, but it seems the budget was not rich enough for that.  After all these years, it is difficult to say anything about stage direction. It is clear that production veteran Deborah Polaski – and, to some extent, Jane Henschel – shows a certain  unity in her gestures. The others seem quite lost. I also know that the title role is really long and is permanently on stage and that a singer should feel thirsty at some point, but I am not entirely convinced that having a bucket of water and a cup as a stage prop is the good idea – no-one in the audience felt that this was connected to the action in any way, but rather a mere necessity one should bear with. Considering the work has completed one hundred years since its creation in Dresden (and its first performance in Berlin roughtly one month later), maybe a newstaging could have been produced.

In what regards horizontal clarity, Michael Boder offered an exemplary performance: complex harmonies were as easily perceived as if you had the score in front of you. However, no pun intended, the proceedings were rarely electrifying, although the orchestra was very responsive to Strauss’s descriptive effects. Sometimes, I had the impression that clarity was achieved at the expense of forward movement, as in Klytämnestra’s nightmare. Also, it is a pity that the brass section lacked finish in a general way.

It is something of a feat that Deborah Polaski is still regularly singing the role of Elektra at 60 (this performance was actually her birthday celebration). Provided you can put up with approximative pitch on exposed high notes, one could say it is still a most effective performance of this most difficult role. Hers is one of the less microphone-friendly voice I have ever heard – on recordings, it almost invariably sounds colourless, while live it is a voluminous stream of warm, rich sound. Above the stave, legato tends to disappear and the tone can become constricted. The extreme top notes were a matter of hit-or-miss, but her relative ease to float mezza voce rescues her from many a difficult passage. Unfortunately, the Recognition Scene, which should be her best moment, caught her bit out of steam.  What is beyond doubt is her intelligence, aided by very clear diction, and dramatic commitment. Although some might find the flaws difficult to overcome, there is one undeniable asset – this is a dramatic soprano with feeling for Straussian style who often beguiles the listener with creamy stretches of expressive singing. Of how many Elektras one could say something like that? But don’t check your recordings to prove me wrong – this time you’ll really have to listen to her yourself at the theatre.

Although Anne Schwanewilms is very popular here in Germany, I believe that Chrysothemis is a no-go for her. Her voice is light for the heavy orchestration, she has problems to pierce into the auditorium in her higher register, often pecks at notes when the score requires flowing legato and, when there is no fallback position and she really has to produce some acuti, the sound is often strained. Not to mention that the buzzing sound over her voice does not help her either.

Jane Henschel’s clear yet forceful mezzo soprano counted with a neverending range of tonal colouring and her clear intervals are a strong asset for the harmonic challenging passages. Although she has clear diction, she still has to work on her American “r”. Hanno Müller-Brachmann offered focused firm tone. I do not know for how long he has been singing the role – he did not seem in his element in terms of interpretation. Reiner Goldberg’s Heldentenor is still very healthy and he never cheated with Ägysth’s angular writing. I have to say something about Monika Riedler’s Aufseherin – she offered one of the most accurate performances of this tiny but critical role that I have ever heard, live or in recordings.

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