Looking back to some musical highlights of 1986

Before we get too far into the new year, I want to acknowledge some events from the fall music season that fit into no particular niche and yet are worthy of recognition. For instance, there was the Connecticut Grand Opera (and Stamford State Opera) presenting the American stage premi`ere of Ferruccio Busoni's ``Turandot.'' This obscure yet fascinating work would seem an improbable choice for a basically conservative and modest regional opera company. And indeed, the production itself was modest in scale: pared-down sets by Ugo Nespolo, a reduced orchestra, and (with the exception of soprano Patricia Craig, in the title role), a cast of little-known singers.

Thanks to conductor Laurence Gilgore's persuasive efforts, the orchestra played the tricky score with aplomb, and one could get more than a hint of Busoni's intentions and of the bewitching power of his music. Unfortunately, Arvin Brown's literal, unclever production gave nary a hint of the satirical nature of the piece. Vocally, Miss Craig managed to make many moments come to life, though the role was essentially out of her grasp interpretively.

Busoni's version sticks very closely to the original Gozzi tale and retains its commedia dell'arte trappings and caustic wit. Such were Mr. Gilgore's contributions that one could see its potentials; if done with full orchestra and able cast, Busoni's ``Turandot'' would no doubt be welcomed as far more than a novelty item.

Handel's ``Messiah'' is hardly a novelty item, particularly at Christmas time. But the chance to hear the work sung by Richard Westenburg's Musica Sacra chorus lured me to Avery Fisher Hall in mid-December. This time around for this annual event, the chorus numbered 29. One constantly marveled at the blends, the richness of the choral tone, the subtlety of the inflections and shadings, and the deep sense of meaning each member of the chorus brought to his or her work.

Unfortunately, the soloists were not first rate, and Westenburg had the modern-instruments orchestra play without vibrato, which caused the strings' intonation to sag all evening long. This, along with his clinical conducting style, made for an evening of conflicts, since the chorus was unable to make us consistently forget what was going on around it.

Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart, however, are constantly aware of what is going on around them, as they so evidently manifested at their Town Hall joint recital in November. They ingest that awareness and allow it to animate the specific musical gesture of the moment. Needless to say, there was an exceptional give-and-take with the audience gathered to help commemorate the 30th anniversary of Concert Artists Guild and Miss Lear's Town Hall debut under that organization's auspices.

The program was varied, lightweight, and delightful. The singers alternated between duets and solos in a broad range of repertoire from the classic German to Ivesian Americana. In all instances, they were expertly well accompanied by Stephen Blier. In the hands of less skilled interpreters, the evening could have been insipid, but both Lear and Mr. Stewart exuded such a love of performing, and such a clear sense of how far to take each song, that one could only sit back and revel in the sheer pleasure of watching two veterans create an event out of little more than charming material.

One does not think of Beethoven's 32 sonatas as charming material - though that charm is an aspect necessary to the successful interpretation of almost all the works. Last season Daniel Barenboim began his overview of the landmark cycle at Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls. The programs were critically hailed as not-to-be-missed occasions.

The fifth concert (and first of this season's final four) passed by in peculiar fashion at Avery Fisher Hall last November, with the pianist making early and late sonatas sound as if cast out of one super-heroic, broadly symphonic mold. He played well, it must be said, but the approach was so matter-of-fact and, finally, off-putting.

Fortunately, Barenboim's latest views of the sonatas have recently been released on Deutsche Grammophon records and compact discs. What I have heard of his third complete recorded cycle, I have rather liked. On CD, it is playing that fully captures the heroic and intimate sides of the music and sounds far more like the Beethoven we have come to expect from this often-stimulating pianist.

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