C1859. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O., w.Igor Kipnis (Harpsichord): Concert champêtre (Poulenc), Live Performance, 7 & 8 Oct., 1977; w.Margaret Gawrystak (Mezzo Soprano): Alexander Nevsky (Prokofiev), Live Performance, 30 & 31 Jan., 1976 (both Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse, NY). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1085. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“This is Volume 8 in St. Laurent’s ongoing series of releases devoted to conductor Christopher Keene. While I don’t recall ever having seen a CD that pairs Poulenc and Prokofiev before, it is a most apt coupling, as there are certain stylistic commonalities in melody and rhythm between them, and of course Prokofiev lived in Paris for several years and knew Poulenc. The CONCERTO CHAMPÊTRE is of especial interest for soloist Igor Kipnis as he never made a studio recording of the work and I can find no other surviving live performance by him. He and Keene take a few measures at the start of the first movement fully to mesh, but after that the performance takes off with all of Poulenc’s tart insouciance, leavened by the beguiling melody of the central Andante. One would like to know the make of harpsichord that Kipnis used here. Poulenc of course wrote the piece for Wanda Landowska and her monster Pleyel, not a historic harpsichord, and this is clearly an instrument of modern and not Baroque manufacture in its tonal weight and more percussive sound. The recording here is particularly vivid and full, compared to other entries in this series, which adds to the impact.
I am not in a good position to evaluate this performance of ALEXANDER NEVSKY for the simple reason that - and here I seem to be a minority of one, or close to it - I regard the score as being an irredeemable piece of bombastic, Soviet Socialist Realism claptrap. Discussions of its discography always start with the iconic Fritz Reiner recording with Rosalind Elias and the Chicago Symphony, and the question as to whether an English-language recording such as that one still remains a viable option for hearing this music when most of the other 20 or so recordings in print use the original Russian. The point is relevant here because this performance also is given in English. Suffice it to say that if unlike me you are among the many fans of this score, Keene and his forces rip into it with full-throttled passion, giving it their all and then some. The one partial let-down in that department is mezzo Margaret Gawrystak in the lament ‘The Field of the Dead’ whose voice has the right Slavic color and plummy weight but is a shade or two over-ripe and verging on (though never quite breaking into) a wobble.
Since as usual St. Laurent provides only basic performance and recording details on a back tray card and front insert and no text I don’t know what translation is being used. The diction of the chorus is good enough that I can readily make out some of the words, and could doubtless figure out even more if I devoted the effort to so doing.
For some, ALEXANDER NEVSKY in English will be a non-starter; for others, that will actually be a positive selling point. Despite being the shorter work, the Poulenc concerto is arguably the main attraction due to its soloist. In any case, fans of either Christopher Keene or Igor Kipnis definitely will want to add this disc to their collections.
- James A. Altena, FANFARE
“I wrote the Concert champêtre between October 1927 and September 1928, or rather made a first version of it. You know what an amazing artist Wanda Landowska is. The way in which she’s revived the harpsichord, or renovated it if you prefer, is simply miraculous. I worked with her on the first version of the work, and we went through it bar by bar, note by note. Most of all, I wanted to use the harpsichord in a manner that was both French, modern, and did not sound like a pastiche. I wanted to prove that the harpsichord was not an obsolete, inefficient instrument of merely historical interest…”
– Francis Poulenc
“There were few jobs around an opera house that Christopher Keene did not do superlatively well. A magnificent conductor, in particular of 20th-century works, and a successful administrator, he also composed, wrote libretti, directed and, in his younger days, prepared singers with missionary zeal.
At New York City Opera, first as music director then, after the retirement of Beverley Sills, as general director, he made an indelible mark on the city's musical life, but his influence extended far beyond New York City, to the Spoleto Festival, both in Italy and the United States; and to all the numerous other opera companies and orchestras that he worked with over the last 25 years, and to whom he communicated his own passionate interest in contemporary opera. He learnt how to conduct as he went along. Instead of finishing his university course, in 1969 he became the first Julius Rudel Fellow, in the New York City Opera's training scheme, helping to prepare operas such as Janacek's MAKROPULOS CASE for its first New York performance. By that time Keene had already become associated with the Spoleto Festival in Italy, of which he was music director from 1976 to 1980. He was asked by Menotti to conduct THE SAINT OF BLEECKER STREET there in 1968. Back in New York, he made his conducting debut with NYCO in 1970 with Ginastera's DON RODRIGO and his Metropolitan debut the following year with CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA and PAGLIACCI. He then ran a summer festival at Chautauqua and conducted for Syracuse Opera and various other organisations.
In 1973 he made his Covent Garden debut conducting MADAMA BUTTERFLY; in 1974 he conducted a RING cycle at Artpark, Lewiston; and from 1977 to 1980 he worked for the American Spoleto Festival at Charleston, South Carolina. He wrote the libretto for Stephen Douglas Burton's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI, an adaptation of Webster's tragedy, and conducted the premiere at Wolf Trap Farm, Vienna, West Virginia, in 1978.
Keene finally returned to the City Opera as musical director in 1983. He conducted Philip Glass' AKHNATEN the following year, and recorded Glass' SATYAGRAHA with the City Opera forces in 1985. In 1988 he conducted the premiere of Jay Reise's RASPUTIN. The following year he became general director of the company. Since then NYCO has gained enormously in reputation, offering New York its first staged performance of MOSES UND ARON and its local premieres of Zimmerman's DIE SOLDATAN and Busoni's DR FAUSTUS.
During its 50th anniversary season in 1993 the City Opera staged three premieres of American operas in October: Ezra Laderman's MARILYN, Lukas Foss' GRIFFELKIN and Hugo Weisgall's ESTHER. These were not conducted by Keene himself, whose personal contribution to the anniversary season was the New York premiere of Tippett's MIDSUMMER MARRIAGE. In June 1994 Keene conducted the premiere of Dominick Argento's DREAM OF VALENTINO for Washington Opera and in May was to be found in Berlin, conducting the first performance of Joost Meier's DREYFUS – ‘DIE AFFARE’ at the Deutsche Oper.
However, his first commitment was to the City Opera, whose 1995 fall season he opened on 7 September conducting a new production of Hindemith's MATHIS DER MALER. Running an opera company, as he once said, ‘was what I was born to do’.”
- Elizabeth Forbes, THE INDEPENDENT, 12 Oct., 1995