Konstantin Lifschitz's Wish-Liszt 

(published first at ionarts)

Stepping in for Roberto Cominati, Konstantin Lifschitz presented his own transcription of Ravel's Daphnes & Chloe at the Terrace Theater, December 11th. The 28 year old Ukrainian, known among connoisseurs for his recording of the Goldberg Variations (Denon) made when he was 17, certainly succeeded in drawing on those those parts of the orchestral suites that suited the ability of the piano best. The result is a pianist's transcription that lends itself to showing off the multitude of colors of the instrument and Mr. Lifschitz played them with the expected dedication. His playing, physically at least, is theatrical, an impression only enhanced by the Japanese (?) silk cape he donned. The shy veneer cannot hide that Mr. Lifschitz is very, very aware of his special ability. A somewhat haughty air and a tad geekiness – coupled with a playful streak that belies his mature age (for a performer) – make a marked contrast to the Horowitz-like composure of a Arcadi Volodos but cannot distract too much from his skill.

Two Waltzes by Chopin - op.69, Nos. 1 & 2 - followed the Ravel which, by that point, had lasted about long enough. The well known first waltz in A-flat from 1835 was a no challenge for Lifschitz's finger-virtuosity and delivered in a lightweight rendition with a limping rubato, while the 1829 waltz No. 2 - B-minor - sounded more like an introduction work for a piano student. If I had to blame anyone other than myself for that perception, it would more likely be Chopin than his interpreter.

The Polonaise Fantaisie in A-flat op.61 – written in the dusk of Chopin's life – was fortunately not plagued by the Chopin-the-wilting-flower attitude that so often distorts his works into fragile piano whispers. Instead, Mr. Lifschitz dug into the New York Steinway much to the benefit of Chopin and the Audience. I could still have taken more bite in the softer passages and skipped the self-consciously slow opening – but in a concert performance the result was very satisfying.

A comment of Washington Performing Arts Society President Neale Perl announced the opening of the new Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda (the politically correct name for Rockville) that will bring such luminary performers as Itzhak Perlman, the Emerson String Quartet and Orpheus to suburbanites, all courtesy of the WPAS.

Then followed some stunning Liszt in the form of the Hungarian's Ballade No.2 in b-minor and the Six Grand Etudes after Paganini. The Ballade – perhaps a 1848 homage to Liszt's soon-to-be-dead friend Chopin (as Eric Bromberger's Program notes suggest) – was played every bit as tempestuously as one could wish for. The 1832 Etudes, performed after some waiting and the consequent request that the coughing audience members please excuse themselves (none did – but there was great murmur and everyone tried to get a last, juicy cough out), are some of Liszt's more difficult (indeed sometimes gratuitously difficult) works – even in their 1851 modification.

It is the showmanship of Paganini transcribed for piano – literally so, in that the etudes are based on 5 of Paganini's 24 Caprices for Solo Violin and the last movement of the second violin concerto (Etude No.3). With fleet fingers, a wide palette of tonal colors, an impressive expressive scale and redoubtable technical ability, he made the most of these works when it would have been impressive alone that someone can play all the notes right. Those performances alone were worth the price of admission – and they brought the remarkable cough-restrained house down.

Romanian Christmas Carols by Bela Bartók were a most welcome and conveniently seasonally appropriate encore. For someone who can't take even one more Christmas themed piece with jingles or bells in it, it was a Godsend. For those who don't like Bartók much, it was a chance to reconsider and recant. The carols are a gorgeous introduction to Bartók's work and style without the scary dissonance. Even after the most impressive Liszt, this was my highlight of the afternoon. The second encore was the seldom heard Beethoven Polonaise – typical Beethoven over a flavor of Haydn and darn pretty. It seemed a soothing desert after much rambunctious virtuosity.

Brahms in Norwegian 

It had been too long since I've enjoyed a concert at the National Gallery of Art... the last time having been Alessandra Marc's performance. (See my Washington Post review.) The crowd at the free Sunday concerts (starting at 6:30 PM since this season) is more diverse, younger and probably more devoted than at many fancy pay-for events. The quality of the performances, meanwhile, isn't an iota lesser. [You can find the Beaux Arts Trio (today at the LoC), the Juilliard Quartet (Friday 17th, LoC), the Mendelssohn Piano Trio (NGA, January 9th) as well as Sabine Mayer, Leila Josefowitz, the St. Petersburg Quartet, the Keller Quartet and the Takács Quartet (in February and March) at these events, which should be saying enough.]

E. Grieg, Sonatas for Violin & Piano, Kjekshus / Kraggerud
Sunday, December the 12th it was the violinist/pianist team of Henning Kraggerud and Helge Kjekshus playing all three Brahms Sonatas for Violin and Piano. (Not “Violin Sonatas”, as I am always tempted to abbreviate misleadingly.) With utmost feeling and a calm, serene pace the Norwegian Duo (presented in cooperation with the Norwegian Embassy and their “A Norwegian Christmas” celebration at Union Station) emphasized the romantic and luscious side of Brahms over his structured and formal one – much to the benefit of the work, I think. It was also the only tempo that the acoustics allow, given the West Garden Court's difficult nature. Mr. Kjekshus, too, adapted visibly and audibly to the reverberating hall, trying to stay off the pedal as much as possible and thereby contributing tremendously to a very enjoyable performance.

The boyish face of Mr. Kraggerud belying his 31 years (he might well be 21, were it not for the mature handling of the music), he steered his colleague's supportive and responsive playing around to great combined success. (Tuning between movements, though, I like even less than applause – and with all due respect to a performers' sense of his instrument, I believe it is more for good luck than out of absolute necessity.)

Henning Kraggerud, who has played with a who-is-who of pianists (Kovacevic, Andsnes and Argerich – to name just three), brought his joyful touch to the speedier second Brahms sonata as well. The immediacy of his communicative performance made more than up for the occasional flat notes of which there were precious few in any case. The D-minor Sonata (No.3) with its lyrical introduction (unfortunately I was once told the “words” to the opening phrase – a joke that has never allowed me to hear it quite with the same ears...) was every bit the beaut it is in these four Norwegian hands, especially when the performance really woke up at the energetic outburst of the otherwise rather tranquil Allegro. The second movement, Adagio, brings out Brahms at his most accessible and perhaps even inspired. The successful welding of structure and emotion is a boon to all those who need their romanticism with a safety net. Not to disparage any lovers of Brahms (I am myself among them), but his music is a bit akin to taunting a lion at the zoo, safely through the bars... the thrill of playing Black-Jack with pennies, sex with the lights out.

Also: The third movement was exquisite! Sparks flew in the last movement (Presto Agitato) and had the audience on its feet. The sensitive playing of Mr. Kjekshus, achieving as good a balance as possible in the venue, was the linchpin to an evening that allowed Brahms, more so than either performer, shine. The delightful and soothing encore was Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen's "Veslemoys Sungh" (Maiden's Song).

P.S. To hear Herr Kraggerud in action again, Washingtonionites won't have to wait to long, either. He will appear in May at the brand new Strathmore Hall in Bethesda with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. To hear them on record, try their NAXOS traversal of Grieg's three (one famous, two sadly underrated) Sonatas for Violin and Piano!


Music With a Pulse 

(published first at ionarts)

Here's an invitation from a young composer of my fleeting acquaintance. (Terry Teachout at About last Night has Paul Moravec, whom he has vocally supported: perhaps this could be the "Ionarts composer"?) At any rate, I've heard his music, and though Europeans would probably scoff it off as "not difficult enough" (read, not atonal) it is both beautiful and with depth... quite an achievement, I believe. For our readers in New York, this would be not only an enjoyment (I assume) but also the way to be ahead of their times! ("Oh... I knew Mr. Boyle's work before it was 'cool' to know it!") I wish we could make good Mr. Ross attend and report on it. [Sadly, I note that Alex Ross has suspended his blog for the rest of this calendar year. We wish him the best as he works on his book.—CTD]

Message from Benjamin C.S. Boyle:
Dear Friends,

I would like to cordially invite you to a very exciting musical event. On December 18th, acclaimed pianist Magdalena Baczewska will be giving a solo piano recital at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Featured on the program is a new work of mine that Ms. Baczewska commissioned from me two months hence: a Ballade. Expanding upon the hallowed narrative form of Chopin, I have created, through a fruitful collaboration with Ms. Baczewska, an eight minute work which I believe to be quite powerful and enchanting. I hope you will be able to join me for what will be a very memorable concert.
For ticket information, please contact 212-247-7800 or go to www.carnegiehall.org.


NSO and Rachmaninoff 2nd 

(published first at ionarts)

Before the concert of the National Symphony Orchestra got under way this Thursday, Leonard Slatkin gave a little speech in which he explained how the three pieces on the program were all connected – even if he only thought of their connection after putting it together. Haydn's Symphony No. 94, the “Surprise”, Kurt Atterberg's 1926 Horn Concerto in A-Minor op.28 and Rachmaninoff's second symphony all, so he claimed, make us think differently about the way we think about music. Rachmaninoff's beautiful melodies, we learned, were actually embedded in very strict and rule-guided symphonic structure, the Atterberg concerto – not an “Oh – oh... one of those...” works as the audience might expect he quipped – would surprise us with its beauty and accessibility and the Haydn, much beloved and well known, has its surprise not in the startling chord in the second movement but in the fourth movements' timpani beats. (Hence the German name: “Mit dem Paukenschlag” [not “mitder Paukenschlag, Maestro!])

With this somewhat spurious connection culled from the works, Mr. Slatkin only underscored that the program had more or less been cobbled together without rhyme or reason. All the same though when the music is good... and the music was good! Haydn, even if marginally heavy-footed, is always a party for your ears and woefully underrated in this country. A bit old fashioned and big boned, it could have used some extra gaiety (Beecham, Jochum and Fricsay have recored versions that compel you to dance), a bit lither, a bit more of a spring in its step... but it was finely executed and perfectly enjoyable. Kurt Atterberg's Horn concerto called on the considerable skills of NSO principal Martin Hackleman, a former Canadian- and Empire Brass member. The Maestro was right when he attested the work high accessibility – but between me and the octogenarian lady behind me (complaining that the Haydn shouldn't be called a symphony because it didn't have enough “substance”) I dare say that most of the audience thought the work still a tad too modern. (The Haydn-critical madame preferred it over the “Surprise”.)

There is a bit of Richard Strauss in it (though it's not nearly as difficult as Strauss' first Horn concerto) which is not surprising given Strauss' stature during the 1920's – even in Atterberg's native Sweden. More surprising was the consistent notion of Ravel that I got... it struck me as a modernized horn-version of Ravel's Piano Concerto. While Atterberg may not be a stunning new discovery to the classical music lover, it was and is certainly wonderful to hear this luscious work in concert.

Rachmaninoff's second symphony, composed in 1905/06 calls for almost the entire NSO players – including eight double basses who tower over their colleagues. The symphony was extraordinarily well performed with little left to wish for. Its romantic sweeps and surges in the first movement were executed to their fullest effect. With the Washington players seemingly in top form, it was no loss and only gain that the Philadelphia Orchestra had switched from the planned Rachmaninoff 2nd to the Mahler 5th last Monday. (Presumably after finding out that the NSO was going to play the same piece just three days later.)

The third movement, conducted without a baton, left nothing to be desired in terms of feeling and was – if any criticism must be found – a bit on the broad, dwelling side. The rousing finale (allegro vivace) made up for that, anyway, and its charged conclusion was greeted with enthusiastic and much deserved applause. Even the standing ovations (usually just a cover for people trying to find their car keys) might have been meaningful for a change.

This concert (arguably the best performance of the NSO I have heard so far) will be repeated this Friday, and Saturday at 8:00pm. Empty seats on Thursday indicated that it should be easy to make last minute plans to catch this unexpected gem in the NSO's season.


The Philadelphia Orchestra & Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg 

(published first at ionarts)

Some people came to the Kennedy Center on Monday, November 29th, still expecting the Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph "Engel mit drei Flügeln" Eschenbach to play Rachmaninov's 2nd Symphony. Wonderful as that work can be, the program got upgraded to Mahler ››5‹‹. (While I betray my personal predilections by calling this an upgrade, the reason might just be that the NSO is planning to play the Rachmaninov 2nd this Thursday, also at the Kennedy Center.) Unlike other Mahler symphonies, the 5th does not suffer from a nickname, though if someone insisted on contriving one, "Life" could be appropriate. (The program notes by Eric Bromberger actually indulged in similar speculations, albeit with slightly different results.) The famous Adagietto of Death in Venice and Bernstein's JFK funeral performance fame is just one part of Mahler taking the listener through the entire cycle of life from the primes of life through loss and rebirth.

G. Mahler, Symphony No. 5, J. Barbirolli
Conducting the Mahler from memory, Christoph Eschenbach—who seems to have settled in with the Philadelphia Orchestra after initial irritations among the Orchestra (which was not consulted when the Management decided on Mr. Eschenbach after he had, in turn, been turned down by the New York Philharmonic)—veered between the analytically precise in his movements and an almost comically animated way of shaking every limb at his disposal at his players. Brass-plated, matter-of-factly, and refreshing were my impressions from the first two movements. The march elements were particularly outstanding, in both meanings of the word. The brazen energy, threatening almost, came out wonderfully at the end of the third movement and made for all the enchanting contrast with the haunting and yearning Adagietto, soft and deeply felt. The pizzicato in the Scherzo was remarkable, and the sole viola plucks reminded one of a mandolin, so vigorously did Roberto Diaz treat his instrument.

Before it got to the Mahler, though, it was Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg and the band playing Mendelssohn's E-minor violin concerto. With a tone that struck me, for lack of a worse word, as 'leathery' and a wee bit on the thin side, Mme. Salerno-Sonnenberg, in dashing black- and white-striped vinyl trousers, stayed true to her reputation. With rubato so pronounced it was more a succession of ac- and decellerandi as well as (is "extreme" too strong?) ...significant shifts in volume took the lyrical element right out of the work, replacing it with virtuosity. Some of the effects were, well, effective, but such an interpretation is also vulnerable to the accusation of being affected. (Her particular—or, if you wish, peculiar—interpretation can be sampled on a disc with her playing the E-minor, Saint-Saëns's Havanise and Introduction and Rondo and Massenet's Méditation [EMI CDC-7 49276 2].) The spiccato parts were great, but most of the work ended up sounding like someone driving a car stepping on and off the accelerator. Mendelssohn, however, is fairly indestructible, and a super-charged, willful interpretation can add to your experience of such oft-heard music.


Dip Your Ears... ( 20 ) 

F. Schubert, Late String Quartets & String Quintet, The Lindseys
Judging by output in any one given year, Schubert has to be the greatest composer ever to have put the pen to the paper–by some margin. The proof in the pudding is the String Quintet, an hour of inspired, painfully beautiful chamber music. The slightly earlier string quartets are no mean feat either. “Death and the Maiden” and the Quartettsatz will make you fall in love with the genre if you are not already. The economic Lindsays set – as far as sets are concerned – is probably the finest available: emotional and vivacious, leading with a rendition of the quintet that has few, if any, rivals. Another famous quartet (on DG) has a similar set out, but the uninspired (if technically perfect) playing only shows why The Lindsays are the ones to go with.

P.S. There are single discs with cleaner music making that is equally spirited. If you are not looking for getting all the late quartets at once, the Quatour Mosaiques' disc is worth your attention!


Bach in B-Minor 

(published first at ionarts)

B. Britten, Requiem, Shafer, The Washington Chorus, NSO
On Sunday, November the 21st, the Washington Chorus under Music Director Robert Shafer opened its 44th season with Bach's Mass in B Minor. In a well-filled (though not sold out—a reminder for friends of ad hoc plans) Kennedy Center Orchestra Hall, Laura Lewis (soprano), Marietta Simpson (mezzo), Robert Baker (tenor), and Eric Owens (bass) took stage. Behind them was the roughly 140-throat-strong Washington Chorus (Grammy Award winners in 2000 for their recording of Britten's War Requiem), indicating by sheer presence that this was going to be a fairly traditional performance. No "one-to-a-part" meddling à la Junghänel or McCreesh here. Nor is the Washington Orchestra a reedy little original instrument band... though their 8-6-4-4-2 (plus winds and brass) configuration is a far cry from the excesses of Thomas Beecham, Albert Coates, or Otto Klemperer. Accounting for the occasional oversized guilty pleasure one must say: mercifully so!

The Mass itself is a bit of a musical quilt. Composed over 24 years, it was at least not conceived from the beginning to be a cohesive whole. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (who also put the Mass on disc in a milestone recording with the Concentus Musicus Wien) discusses origin and performance practice at length in his book Der musikalische Dialog (available in English on Amazon.)

Robert Shafer mentions our (relatively) new understanding of the performance of the Mass (he refers to Mr. Harnoncourt's recording in his liner notes) and explains that the ultimate goal in presenting Bach's work (who himself never heard it performed) is getting the balance right. In order to do that with a modern orchestra, a bigger choir is needed. If that necessarily means eight times bigger than Bach would have had is a different matter, it seems. "Advanced choral art," meanwhile, helps keep the textures as clean as they would have been in Bach's day.

What exactly "advanced choral art" amounts to, I do not know, but I am happy to report that the choir did sound darn good. That the textures were as clean as in the old days (assuming that is even desirable) is not likely to be true... in fact could not have been true with the orchestra playing vibrato like it's Mahler.

J. S. Bach, Mass in B Minor, Gardiner
The soloists were all very able and played and sang beautifully. Notable, among other fine instrumental soloists, was flutist Karen Johnson. Given the performance, Mme. Simpson's vibrato was not out of place in her—one wobble apart—outstanding rendition. Sculpting music with his arms in grand and flowing gestures, Maestro Shafer looked a bit like he was fighting off invisible fencers; the baton his cutlass.

The singing was faultless, with the small exception of the "Crucifixus etiam pro nobis" part of the Credo, where the pianissimo parts fell apart and became a cluster of soft hisses flying about, like the flashes going off in the bleachers at a sporting event. Minor quibbles, indeed, and hardly reason not to treat oneself to a live account of this wonderful work that will always carry a special appeal to experience in person.

J. S. Bach, Mass in B Minor, Harnoncourt (nla)
Upcoming performances of the Washington Chorus include three Christmas concerts at the Kennedy Center December 18, 21, and 22. For more information, check out their schedule online.

My favorite available recording of the B Minor is Gardiner's, while Karajan with Kathleen Ferrier is one of the most impressive, slightly more old fashioned versions. A disc with excerpts of it (as well as excerpts of the wonderful Karajan/Ferrier St. Matthew Passion, recently reissued and wonderfully remastered by Andante) is readily available. Karl Richter, as great a Bach conductor as there ever was, has his performances see the light of day again in a 10-disc collection by Archiv of all the sacred works by Bach. (Gardiner, too, had his Bach Passions and Masses reissued a few weeks ago... and if you were thinking about even one more of his Bach recordings of the Passions (or the Christmas Oratorio [my favorite being Richter]) it is worth getting the whole set.)


Dip Your Ears... ( 19 ) 

(published first at ionarts)

B. Bartók, Mikrokosmos, Huguette Dreyfus
"Curiosita" is the name of the new, mid-price series of Harmonia Mundi. Rather than churning out old mainstays of the back catalogue, it devotes itself to works off the beaten path and rewards those listeners who are, well, curious. Bartók’s Mikrokosmos is a wonderful example. And as if those dozens and dozens of keyboard miniatures weren't obscure enough, here they come in a surprise account played on the clavecin. That, as it turns out, is the "kicker." Mme. Dreyfus (C. Rousset's teacher) makes books 3 to 6 the most charming, gainful, rhythmical little things—like an army of small mechanical toys on a mission of fun and mischief. Questioning his preference for Mikrokosmos on piano vs. clavecin (a Bartók suggestion), i.e. "hammered" or "plucked," an ARG reviewer went so far as to say that in order to want to listen to the whole set you'd have to be hammered in the first place. This disc proves that wrong. Expect rather to become curiously drunk with excitement.

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