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29.4.05

Gidon Kremer pre-Carnegie-Strathmore Concert 

(published first at ionarts)

Available at Amazon
G.Kancheli Lament, G.Kremer etc.
After an unacceptably unfunny, boring and interminable speech by a violinist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Gidon Kremer relieved the audience at the Strathmore with the sounds of “Lonesome – 2 Great Slava from 2GKs”. The subtitle is rather tiresome with its jarring new-Age touch and is really just a dedication to Rostropovich from the work’s composer Giya Kancheli and Gidon Kremer.

The stop & go pianissimo and piano start of the work – beautifully melodic and with a catchy rhythm – gave the audience ample opportunity to cough right into the most tender passages. For its beauty, Lonesome pays with lack of originality. The sudden, terraced tutti outbursts that end even more suddenly we already know from him and other conservative East European composers. I like Kancheli’s work which I know mostly from a slew of ECM releases – this is not one I’ll be quick to add 2myCollXtion.

Available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich Complete Concertos, G.Kremer, H.Schiff, V.Mullova, P.Jablonski, C.Ortiz
No worries, though, because Shostakovich loomed over Kancheli’s horizon. The 1st Violin Concerto in a-minor, op.99 is a magnificent work and the Strathmore acoustics’ (over)emphasis of the lowest registers had the double basses buzz deliciously. Even if Kremer was not quite in Carnegie-form yet where he will play tomorrow (a few slips, a few flat notes in the Nocturne: Moderato first movement), he also showed why he has the reputation of being one of the most appealing violinists of our day. His tone in the first movement was lean, bleak even... and though I thought ‘honeyed’ at one point, ‘hauntingly colorless’ probably better describes it.

The attack of the second movement temporarily turned Kremer’s instrument into a viola before the aggressive high notes put an end to this. Vigorously quoting Shostakovich’s initials (D-S-C-H), Kremer’s bow looked like it had seen fierce battle. Amidst half a dozen flying strands of horsehair, Kremer gave a good amount of ferocity to the wild Scherzo without his relatively small tone ever losing its lithe quality. The rhythm of the entire movement was infectious. Meticulously carved notes dominated the long third movement’s Passacaglia: Andante and the Presto bit of the fourth movement Burleque ended the work on a note of (much appreciated, judging from the applause) vigor.

Available at Amazon
G.Kancheli Lament, G.Kremer etc.
Debussy’s La Mer followed – all under the leadership of Yuri Termikanov, of course – and rather than shimmering with magic, it had a nervous flutter to it. It was executed capably and offered rousing moments. (What a live performance can be is shown by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra’s recording under Abbado, both on their CD and DVD of the occasion.)

Ravel’s La Valse is Johann Strauss II on acid – but for all the turmoil in which Ravel found himself when writing it, it’s essentially good natured and not as cynical or scathingly ironic as Mahler’s often twisted use of the waltz and its forms. Well played as the BSO offered it, it was a joy to hear.

26.4.05

Slow Food for the Ears: Thielemann in Bruckner's 5th 

(published first at ionarts)

Not Available at Amazon
A. Bruckner, Symphony No. 5, Thielemann / MuPhil
Slow food for the ears – that could or should be the motto for Bruckner enjoyment. In times of where everyone seems to cater (rather than discourage) shorter and shorter attention spans, an 80-some minute Bruckner symphony seems more anachronistic than ever. Fortunately the Prussian conductor Christian Thielemann is not prone to pander to popular culture where he does not see it to be an improvement – and he takes his time with Bruckner. His recording of the 5th Symphony is taken from the live performance of his ‘inaugural’ concert with the Munich Philharmonic last Summer – and was one of the the musical and social highlights of the cultural year in southern Germany.

Having taken over from James Levine, Thielemann is expected to carry on the tradition of the Orchestra with such Romantic heavy-weights as Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner and, of course, Anton Bruckner. The choice of the 5th symphony – no matter what he claims in the interesting liner notes – must have been deliberate. The orchestra premiered the work’s original version, Furtwängler chose it as his first work with the orchestra and the great Bruckner conductor Sergeiu Celibidache, who headed the Munich Philharmonic for 17 years until his death in 1996, inaugurated its new hall, the “Gasteig” in 1985 with Bruckner’s 5th.

The Deutsche Grammophon engineers achieved a feat in putting the performance onto one disc (cutting applause and shortening breaks between movements) which is now the longest playing compact disc in their catalogue at 82:34. This is the third longest Bruckner 5th in my collection – topped only by two versions of Celibidache who takes a whopping 88 and 84 minutes with the same orchestra.

With the history of the players involved and the perfect match of the lush Munich sound with Thielemann’s strengths, this was the disc I had most looked forward to receiving – especially after the rave reviews of the concert. But of course anything this highly anticipated has a difficult time to live up to those expectations – and this is no different in that it did not shoot straight to the top of my list.

Some critics and conductors have lamented the fact that Bruckner, Wagner and Mahler have been slowed down continuously over the years – in an ill-conceived attempt to instill extra reverie into those works. There is much to be said about that attitude (especially in Wagner!), but ultimately it still depends on the performance whether an approach works or not. But slowness isn’t Thielemann’s problem. His approach works and works very well. His problem is that I expected the world from the recording and he only delivers upper Austria and Bavaria. His problem is: Celibidache.

Available at Amazon
I love and revere Günter Wand’s recordings of the 5th, Guiseppe Sinopoli’s Dresden account is a wonder, every recording with Jochum’s has undeniable qualities. Still, no one approaches the drive (even at those slow speeds – compare his 24:14 Adagio to the 15:49 that Wand needs), the sound and the sheen that the eccentric Rumanian elicits from his players. But if the overall impression does not warrant top recommendation, Thielemann still has moments of unrivalled beauty. The re-introduction of the principal theme in the first movement at 10:50 is painfully beautiful, slowly builds towards another one of those mini-climaxes which are all lined up like pearls on a string and his string instruments shimmer behind the note-by-note climb of the woodwinds. At 12:12 there is a mighty, majestic free rolling thunder that gets picked up by the brass in playing that belies the one-performance live recording. One important element in a recording of the 5th is the audibility of the opening plucked bass-line. In the concert hall, you can see, feel and sense them, even if they are difficult to hear. There is no such help on a recording and engineers should therefore raise the level in the beginning. Fortunately, the are audible (if still on the quiet side) on the Thielemann recording and only the EMI engineers of Celibidache’s recording make it even ‘easier’ to hear them.

The second movement’s broad melodic element is brought out nicely between 3:04 and 5:15 – for once not interrupted by Bruckner with some brass fanfare. It’s heaven and whipped cream with the pulsing horns behind the soaring strings, all propelled by the meticulous rhythmical sense of Thielemann’s who never lets ‘slow’ become plodding. This disc is surely one of the finest 5th out there – and since either Celibidache’s or Wand’s discs are not easily available in the U.S., only Sinopoli on DG is a serious rival. Conveniently, they are at different ends of the interpretive spectrum and therefore very complimentary. I happen to believe that you can’t have too many Bruckner 5th’s (I have ten, so far and have heard many others), and this is one of the four best recordings I have ever heard. If it were between adding a second or third Bruckner 5th to your collection over a new discovery, though, I’d strongly encourage the latter.

22.4.05

All that Jazz 

Link to the Tord Gustavsen Trio's Web Site


Not usually in the Jazz business, Ionarts does lend its ears to non-classical music (nonontational, as other, hipper, writers might like to say) on occasion. I love ECM, I love Scandinavian Jazz ('get hot by staying cool') and the Tord Gustavsen Trio that represents Norwegian Jazz on my hometown label has a gig at the Blues Alley on Monday - from 8:00 PM on. Bring your favorite wool sweater and get crazy.

20.4.05

Mariss Jansons' DSCH-4 

Did I not just review a Shostakovich 4th Symphony? Valery Gergiev’s most recent DSCH recording (Philips) got a generally enthusiastic thumb up – albeit with some reservations. Those reservations had to do with clarity of sound, especially where I did not find it chilly enough in what should be the harsh clang-clang of the xylophones in the first movement. I also thought it lacking in ‘furiosity’ in the first two movements. On those accounts, I preferred Rudolf Barshai and his West German Radio Symphony Orchestra (part of their super-budget complete set on Brilliant). The Largo-Allegro with its massive build-up was Gergiev most impressive strength.

Available at Amazon
D.Shostakovich Symphony No.4, M.Jansons / BRSyO
Sometimes, two different approaches can be genial but incompatible, but here I thought a combination of the two possible. Little did I know that it had already been issued, at about the same time. Can you say: “Hello, Mariss Jansons!”

Newly anointed to helm the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (taking over from Lorin Maazel) and the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam (taking over from Riccardo Chailly) he recorded the Shostakovich 4th with the former band in 2004. The result is smashing – quite literally. The first movement has almost the harsh, clear and clean acoustic of the Brilliant recording while at the same time keeping a richer sound for the strings. The xylophones sound like a horde of drunken skeletons playing ghastly tunes on their exposed ribcages.

Torment, accusation, wild-eyed plowing forward are visceral at every turn of the corner in this interpretation. Come the galloping undercurrent of the Presto of the first movement at about 17 minutes and you can positively see a demented orchestra with foam at their mouth plunging fatalistically forward. Little wonder DSCH kept the symphony in the drawer after his Opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtkensk District (LINK) had been criticized and he felt (rightly, we presume) only steps removed (there’s a bad pun, if you think about it) from the Gulag.

When performed with all that anger, the biting, painful sarcasm, the futile energy that the Bavarians and Jansons put into the work, the symphony becomes an indictment of whichever regime you currently hate the most. Dimitry Shostakovich could have been interned in any country after such a delivery. But it isn't just on the ferocious side that Jansons scores. In particular his softer, the more 'lyrical' elements of the symphony come out more than with Barshai who (as indeed all Russian interpreters save Gergiev) plays out the violence throughout the entire work. With the mellow elements receiving extra care, Jansons further hightens the contrasts in this work.

The recording, not available as an SACD (this, perhaps, is Gergiev’s trump), has a wide range of dynamics and as such is not ideal if you have noise-sensitive neighbors. It was made to be listened to at high volume and cranking it up endows it with a fist-pumping quality that will put any death-metal aficionado to shame. If you have acquired the taste for Shostakovich’s musical language (say, via his Preludes and Fugues), then you will find this symphony in this version in all its glorious rawness to be simply awesome.

As clearly as this is now my favorite version of the work, the Barshai recording surprised me once again (it should not have – his cycle is uniformly excellent) in how well it held up against even the most formidable competition. Its sound may not have the depth of Jansons or Gergiev and the performance isn’t as ‘visual’ as the Bavarian RSO’s but it’s nonetheless excellent. If Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are not enough of a sarcastic onslaught for you, this is your next stop in symphonic delight. After all, Mozart for Morning Meditation and Bach for Bedtime (shiver) need to be supplemented every so often with Shostakovich for Mid-Afternoon Despair!

17.4.05

Twilight Concert at the Corcoran 

(published first at ionarts)

The Corcoran Gallery of Art is home to a little jewel box of a room in their Salon Doré, decorated with gold panels, gilding, and a large ceiling mural. If it has the feel of stepping into an 18th-century central European royal chamber, it's because it is exactly that: a salon of the Clermont mansion, commissioned by the Comte d'Orsay and transferred to New York before being bequeathed to the Corcoran. The room alone would be worth the trip, but last Sunday (April 10), a Twilight Concert was held in this room. Daylight Saving Time may have made that a slight misnomer, but no finer and more intimate setting could have been found for this chapter of Washington's Paris on the Potomac celebration. A turquoise-blue harpsichord greeted the audience and fit the decor like a glove.

The program presented one of my favorite composers, Georg Philipp Telemann, the early Baroque composer Jakob Froberger, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Performing works for transverse flute and harpsichord were the young Messrs. St. Martin and Pearl. Colin St. Martin, who honed his traverso skills in Brussels under Berthold Kuijken (a member of the eponymous early music gang), played the Telemann Suite in D Minor, and a few uneven spots aside, he played it very well. Adam Pearl accompanied him with equal skill and commitment.

Available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Complete Sonatas for Flute
In the Froberger Suite in G Minor for harpsichord—very much in the French style, with its imitations of dance movements Allemande, Gigue, Courante, and Sarabande—Mr. Pearl was able to communicate some sense of the joy it is to play these works. A few slips here and there could not distract from that. Bach's Partita in A Minor (BWV 1013) for flute solo is a very fine little work covering a surprising range of emotions. Mr. St. Martin's own Prélude was tacked on to the front; the Sarabande seemed curiously missing. While there were several weaker spots, the performance also offered moments that were downright ravishing.

Telemann's Concerto III in A was marvelous from the first note on. Not in the French style, in which Telemann was such an astute master, but no less beautiful for that. Pearl and St. Martin both turned in their finest and most charged playing and gave the work an exciting edge. Even when presented so well, the work may still not convince anyone today that Telemann is vastly superior to Bach, but it certainly offered a hint as to why their contemporaries thought so. (Bach, incidentally, only got his job in Leipzig because the first choice, Telemann, and the second choice, Christoph Graupner, declined.)

The subsequent reception, with French wine and conversation amid the paintings of the Corcoran Gallery, rounded a wonderful evening off splendidly.

15.4.05

Temirkanov's Mahler of Brass 

(published first at ionarts)

When presenting her report cards to my grandparents, my mother always eagerly pointed out that the official language equivalent of the grade 4 (1 being the best, 6 an F) was, "Deserves neither praise nor reprimand." I doubt that that kept my grandparents from dishing out some tough encouragement, but it happens to be a great description of how I felt about the Baltimore Symphony's performance of Beethoven's 4th piano concerto last Saturday, April 9, at Strathmore Hall.

Under the baton of Yuri Temirkanov and with the Georgian Elisso Virsaladze on the Strathmore's 9-foot New York Steinway (the first outing of the instrument, since Kissin refused to play on it and had his own instrument sent down from New York last Wednesday), the concerto occupied the strange realm where nothing was particularly flawed or wrong but nothing overwhelming, either. It wasn't too glib, cold, or uninvolved. There were some really nice touches, some flawed trills. It was always enjoyable (the fact that the G major concerto is arguably the finest piano concerto ever written helps, I am sure) but not in a way that made me gush.

Strathmore's tendency to emphasize the bass notes, rich and sonorous sounding it is, was evident and a good deal too much in the Beethoven. Where I was sitting a little bit further back than usual (perhaps some 40 feet from the stage), the low buzzing and rumbling muddied other orchestral parts at times. In the Mahler it sounded the same but was more fitting and added excitement. It makes me want to hear Shostakovich's 5th symphony at the Strathmore.

Mahler's 4th symphony is one of the more accessible symphonies of a composer I have learned to love like few others. The present flavors of Austria always tug on my heartstrings, though may not make as much sense to someone who grew up in Oregon or New Jersey. At the very least, since Bernstein has so effectively popularized Mahler in this country, however, his symphonies are played often and often well. The days in which German and Austrian orchestras had a distinctive idiomatic advantage over other orchestras may not be over altogether, but there are American orchestras that play Mahler as well as any other. Cleveland under Szell, Boston under Ozawa, and these days the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas are but three examples. What I have heard from the NSO in Mahler, even under the excellent Roberto Abbado, did not impress me. All the more surprising was it to me that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra produced such committed and pleasing performance of the 4th.

Mahler does not need to be perfect in order to please; he needs enthusiasm and energy. Barbirolli's recorded performances often speak to that. Not to compare the somewhat sloppy conducting of Temirkanov to Sir John's, but even as the Russian maestro waved and flapped about like a musical seal or a bored traffic cop, the BSO played with the requisite excitement to put—as Tim Page has put in his review of the Thursday performance in Baltimore—that smile on your face.

I am not a fan of the direction the BSO has taken since David Zinman left, but to Temirkanov's credit it must be said that the brass section, for which he is largely responsible, was quite outstanding. If criticism be found, it was in the lack of tightness of the performance, which could have used more definition. Even so, it was not as much a concern as in the aimless Beethoven, and a tender and yearning slow movement, not overly sentimental, made you forget that very quickly.

Soprano Twyla Robinson sang Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden amiably, though she did not impress particularly. Her pronunciation and diction were excellent, but she never soared above the orchestra.

13.4.05

Esclarmonde, Part 2 

(published first at ionarts)

The following observations are in addition to my review of the same performance, which took place last Friday. You can also read the review by Tim Page (Washington Post, April 11).—CTD

The Lisner Auditorium hosted the Washington Concert Opera's performance of Massenet's Esclarmonde. Rarely heard in opera houses (that's the point with the admirable philosophy behind the Washington Concert Opera), it was a literally rare treat to hear the music live. The productions of the WCO are not staged, giving room for the (skillfully) thrown together orchestra and the chorus to fit behind the singers.

Dean Peterson's full bass was well employed in the very exposed and long prelude of the Opera that has Phorcas set the plot and introduce his daughter. Act I had Celena Shafer in the role of that daughter, Esclarmonde, bemoan her lonely state, despite being the newly crowned queen of Byzantium after her father's abdication. The lonely Queen also wants French hero and knight Roland for herself—and before he marries some other girl (the French king's daughter, actually, as she hears), she whisks him off to an enchanted island and follows him there—as she conveniently is endowed with magical powers inherited from her father.

This vocal tour de force was managed outstandingly by said Celena Shafer, whose bright, clear and accurate voice was "interrupted" only by Gigi Mitchell-Velasco's husky mezzo (singing Parséïs, Esclarmonde's sister) and tenor Eric Fennell's Enée, Byzantine knight, local hero, and fiancé to Parséïs. Mme. Shafer was rightly showered with wild applause and bravos after Act I, to which she responded with faux-incredulous gestures of "Me??? Really?? Are you sure? Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" Mr. Fennell proved to possess a beautiful voice, so long as he sang with moderate volume and relaxation. Aims of his to up the decibels or the "drama" of his voice immediately showed strain, took away the beauty, and added nothing, not even volume. Fortunately, that did not occur very often.

On the enchanted island, meanwhile, a confused knight Roland—vocally underrepresented in perfect French by a (seemingly) weak Robert Breault—when the veiled Esclarmonde flies in. Plotwise it gets tricky from here. Roland falls hard for his kidnapping admirer, even though he cannot know who she is, nor look at her face until she turns 20. Still... Unfortunately, the French city of Blois needs Roland to defeat a siege of which Esclarmonde had a vision that she (silly thing) shared with him. She promises Roland nightly visits and gives him a magic sword of invincibility, activated only so long as he is faithful and keeps secrecy about their love life. If this sounds like backwards Lohengrin after a few too many Pernod's, it gets even better after intermission!

There we see King Cléomer of Blois facing defeat at the beginning of Act III. François Loup, who looked like Roland/Breault's father (which confused me additionally), sang his part marvelously, with a round and comfortable voice that carried through the hall with ease. Robert Gardner sang the suspicious spoiler of a Bishop. Standing next to Mr. Loup made for as impressive an argument as can be devised that stature and build have nothing to do with the quality or volume of voice. Mr. Loup is a small, almost frail-looking man of advanced age and could be your grocer next door or a shy office clerk near retirement whose hobby is growing cauliflower. Next to him young and big Mr. Gardner is all neck, chest, and torso. Aside from looking distinctly like a man in a lion suit (including his blond, wavy mane), he performed with every mannerism of an opera singer: squinting, very dramatic breathing, portentous movements. Despite all those remarkable differences, both were equally successful in tone production and volume. Two admirable performances to which Mr. Loup added the additional ounce of visceral joy of music-making.

Roland, meanwhile, lands in the nick of time to beat the enemy Saracen Sarwegur and save the city and all of France. He is consequently offered another bride, King Cléomer's daughter. Roland's "Thanks, but no thanks" makes the Bishop wonder. He quizzes Roland in private and forces the hero to cough up his Esclarmonde secret. The Bishop declares the Esclarmonde business (not without some justification, to be fair) witchcraft. As Esclarmonde makes her nightly visit, which she announced with backstage vocal exercises, in which Celena Shafer nailed a high F-sharp, the Bishop returns in soul-saving and exorcizing mode and rips off Esclarmonde's veils. While Roland is dazzled by her beauty, Esclarmonde laments that she has lost her magical powers and her throne. Scolding Roland, she runs off.

In the forest of the Ardennes where Phorcas has curiously retired to a cave, Parséïs and Enée visit and explain the situation to the former King. Phorcas resumes his magical powers and has Esclarmonde flown in by spirits. (The Deus ex machina worked overtime.) She is once more assured of her permanent loss of throne and powers and told that lest she renounce Roland, the knight will die. So she tells him (he's somehow arrived at the scene: I don't know how) to forget her and, with some minor complications, is taken back by her father to Byzantium to be the first prize at the tournament that has all along been planned to mark her 20th birthday.

One knight also went to the tournament with the intention to "find death," and this mysterious hero in black armor wins the tournament anonymously and despite himself. Not knowing whose hand he just won, the knight refuses the prize, but Esclarmonde hears the voice and recognizes Roland. Everyone unveils and "unvisors" and Esclarmonde and Roland are happily united. The chorus (underrehearsed in this production, to say the least) rejoices and praises Empress Esclarmonde. How exactly she got to be empress again is not clear, but it does not really matter compared to the grave sin of Massenet's unforgivable departure from Wagnerian opera logic in that no one dies. Even with this layup for "redemption though sacrificial love and internal combustion" criminally missed, it was a joy to see and hear Esclarmonde.

The entire cast was good, but Mme. Shafer's bright voice that hit all the notes deserves special mention. To point out that her voice had little color and character seems unfair, almost, given the astounding achievement her performance was all around. If Robert Breault had had a weak start, he certainly warmed up over the course of the opera. By the third act he had transformed himself into something resembling a heroic tenor. Towards the finale, I had to take back my initial assessment entirely. I was, however, worried about the imminent explosion of his head, as he had successively grown redder in the face, ending the opera in the astounding color of eggplant. Dean Peterson's Phorcas was most impressive, also, with his stage presence coming through even in a concert performance. The orchestra under the able leadership of Antony Walker performed well.

The music is well worth hearing. Even if not likely as good an opera as Thaïs or Manon, it's quite distinct, perhaps more unique than beautiful, but always very pleasant. The finale is—hackneyed as the story may be—goose-bump inducing, thanks once more to very commendable vocal performances. The next WCO experience will be Luisa Miller on June 5th. After the promise of this performance, I know I won't want to miss it.

11.4.05

Ligeti with the Pacifica Quartet 

(published first at ionarts)

Available at Amazon
F. Mendelssohn Complete String Quartets, Pacifica Quartet
In the second to last concert of the Freer Gallery’s 2004-2005 season, the Cleveland Quartet- and Naumburg awards winning Pacifica Quartet began their refreshing program with well-played Mendelssohn’s String Quartet op.13. The opening Adagio - Allegro vivace shows already how very good and still underrated Mendelssohn’s quartets are. Fortunately this is beginning to change. Complete Mendelssohn String Quartet cycles on record (he only wrote six or seven – depending whether a very, very early work is included) are no longer a rarity. In fact, the Pacifica Quartet just added one of their own on the Cedille label to the extant Emerson (DG), Talich (Caliope), Ysaÿe (Decca), Coull (Hyperion) and ‘Leipzig’ (MDG) cycles.

While op.13 is not of the depth that parts of the magnificent op.80 – a very special work in Mendelssohn’s œvre – contain, early opus numbers should never be cause for hesitation with this composer. The only juvenilia that are not worth repeated listening do not have opus numbers... and even those are still very fine. Sure enough, op.13, composed at any rate when Felix was a mature composer of 18 already (by then he had already written the Octet and most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, offers beauty aplenty. It also has fugal elements in which the question “Ist es wahr” (Is it true?) pops up – a rather overt hint at Beethoven’s fugal Question of “Muss es sein” (Must it be?) in his last string quartet, op.135.

Available at Amazon
G. Ligeti String Quartets, Haagen & LaSalle Quartets
The program offered Ligeti next... and to hear this composer’s first string quartet is always worth running to the ticket counter. Even more so, when the tickets are free as they are at the Freer/Sackler Gallery’s Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. Györgi Ligeti’s quartet, named “Mètamorphoses nocturnes” (well recorded by the Hagen Quartett on the DG 20/21 label) had the best imaginable ambassadors of his music in the Pacifica Quartet which not only played the work with visible and audible engagement, enthusiasm and skill but also had cellist Brandon Vamos introduce the work. He did so complete with musical examples of the theme, its many mètamorphoses, he pointed the work’s humor and explained the origin of its particular and peculiar Bela Bartók inspired ‘nocturnal’ sounds. Drawn in through this charming and informative help, many of the (more old than young) audience appreciated the quartet they might otherwise have dismissed as cacophonous modernism. That they delighted in it en masse was audible from the many genuine laughs and chuckles during the performance. If the quartet was a delight to hear, it was even better to hear it so well received. The Hungarian Embassy should foot the Pacifica Quartet’s bill and ship them around the country on a Ligety mission!

Ludwig van Beethoven’s op.131 was the second half’s attraction and, as late Beethoven tends to be, all that was needed. The density and intensity of these five late string quartets is so great that their digestion takes time, is never quite complete and often enough exhausting. They are works that you can’t take too much of, but can’t be without, either. For those who do not hear them at concerts often enough, there are many excellent recordings available. Current favorites of mine are the Takács performances (Decca), though the Emersons, too, are brilliant with their icy and perfect rendition (DG).
The Pacifica Quartet meanwhile performed splendidly, also, and brought out the opening Adagio’s yearning and intertwined musical strands that would have done Messrs. Wagner and Mahler proud. The Allegro molto vivace was – appropriately enough – very animated and their intonation, if not perfect, impressive. That they had fun making this music was visible and contributed to the unadulterated success of the concert.

The Pacifica Quartet is the resident Quartet at the University of Illinois / Urbana and the University of Chicago. First and second violins are Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernardsson, Masumi Par Rostad mans the viola and Brandon Vamos, as mentioned, wields the cello. The Freer’s next and last concert features the Shanghai Quartet on the 20th of April.

5.4.05

Form Over Matter? Lang Lang at the Kennedy Center 

He has the ability to tell a story with every two notes he plays. There is never anything mechanical about it. People who have this degree of facility and technical – almost acrobatic – control of the instrument, usually don’t have the sensitivity or the intelligence to go with it… whereas for Lang Lang it is so natural that one almost takes his facility for granted, which one shouldn’t, because it is quite extraordinary. You know… he is like a cat on the piano.

So spoke Daniel Barenboim about Lang Lang in 2001. It is, in two, three sentences a rebuttal of the most typical and often repeated (usually harsh) criticism of Lang Lang and his playing. Barenboim’s statement, if anyone’s, should give everyone reason to pause in their lambasting of Lang Lang, who gave a solo recital at the Kennedy Center’s sold out Concert Hall as the capstone of WPAS’ 2004/05 Celebrity Series.

Still, the question invariably rises: which one is it? Vapid playing of amazing technical skill? Empty showmanship with all the right notes? Or that and intelligence and sensitivity, telling a story with every two notes he plays?

The classical music super-star came out on stage with the light-footed air of consciousness of fame in a humble exterior. Light, too, was the Mozart Piano Sonata K330 and its interpretation. Pearled off with accuracy and ease, it came closer to the “Dresden China” approach than I should have liked. I’ve heard Marc-André Hamelin, one of the very few pianists with greater technical facility than Lang Lang – similarly and disappointingly tiptoe through a Mozart sonata. Perhaps excessive technical skill gets in the way when playing Mozart? The result was then and here was perfectly beautiful harmlessness.

Chopin 3rd piano sonata in b-minor op.58 was next. It, too, seemed on the light side – miles away in character from Pollini’s performance of the 2nd sonata in a WPAS concert last year. It was friendly smiling Chopin, mild-mannered, well-behaved without dramatic outbreaks and a surprisingly narrow dynamic band. I thought there was nothing maestoso about the first movement. There was a continuous flow to the performance that underplayed audible “anchor-points”, like the recurrence of the first movement’s theme that humbly came and went. Between physical showmanship and routine playing, the Largo and the Finale Presto ma non tanto were capably done but somewhat pedestrian. That this was distinctly a minority opinion was made clear when the audience rose up almost as one to give Lang Lang a standing ovation.

Schumann’s Kinderszenen opened the second half’s musical course of romantic bits and pieces. Softness and that curiously mild-mannered touch dominated Lang Lang’s playing. Except for the choices of tempo, his it is not theatrically exaggerated. Dynamically muted, his tone is round and friendly, even in more tempestuous or bold passages. His tempi can be fast but are more often slow – maybe even overly so, dwelling at every emotional nook and cranny offered by the music. “Curiose Geschichten” was taken to such extremes that it fell apart. An increasingly noisy and restless audience seemed to indicate that he had, for a little while, failed to capture them with his drawn out performance.

Lang Lang (then still with short hair)
One of the distractions about Lang Lang is his habit of acting out the music’s emotion with his entire body. These interpretative dances about whichever piece he is playing at the time may just be one of the reasons why so many critics love to bash his performances. It elicits an internal response along these lines: “Don’t tell us how we are supposed to feel about the music through your swaying, contorting and arm-flapping – but make us feel it through the way you push the keys.” From his nose on the black keys to arms fully extended, leaning far back, then hands moving through the air with maximum gravitas – he masters the whole range of ‘The Romantic Pianist’s 101 Most Hackneyed Movements’. With and because of these antics, he looks like the very image of the piano virtuoso. His performances are marvelous on sheer visual grounds. A German saying goes “the eye eats along” – i.e. that food’s appearance is very important and legitimately so. Would it be less legitimate for music to have to look good, too? (The Takács String Quartet, for example, is so much fun live, not least because they look so great doing Bartók.)

I suppose that it is a matter of priority. Some, especially in this town, put a premium on their food looking excellent and being served in the right, happening place – others demand it foremost taste good. Lang Lang looks better than he taste… err, sounds. That the broad public readily forgives him that discrepancy may be related to the fact that, for all the quibbles, he still sounds darn good. Breaking into the Rachmaninov b-flat minor prelude from op.2 with lots of gusto, though a tad pedal-heavy, was rather exciting and certainly entertaining. Ditto Prelude No.5 from the same set. The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody (in Horowitz’s transcription), too, went some way in proving his ability. Of course, he almost did hop off with the piano bench during his acted out wild ride… but what would come of classical music if it were all stiff, dry, proper. It’s showbusiness, after all, and Lang Lang is its rock-star, drawing in thousands of newcomers to serious and well played classical music. For that I’d let him hop out of the Kennedy Center.

The Liszt Rhapsody’s last note was still reverberating, when the audience leapt to their feet again, hollering and bravoing Lang Lang back to the piano bench. “Moon Light Reflects on a Lake”, if I caught the title correctly, was his Chinese encore and sounded like early, tame Tan Dun. Which virtuoso program does not end with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” – and so Lang Lang indulged the audience with a performance of that, also.

3.4.05

Ioanna d’Arcova at the Washington National Opera 

(published first at ionarts)

This is a follow-up to this previous post on this opera.

Ambition alone, even a genius's ambition, does not necessarily translate into unmitigated success. Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans, said to be his most ambitious opera, is such a case. Russian peasantry roaming the French countryside: that is his opera in a nutshell. At the risk of displaying my ignorance and dislike of opera again (such were some responses to my Nabucco posting), the Maid is uneven, dramatically unconvincing, and save for a beautiful first act and the great love duet of Joan and Lionel, conspicuously missing the good tunes we expect from Tchaikovsky. In short: not a terribly fine work. Especially not so when presented in a production as static as I never have seen, nor am likely ever to see again.

The production merits mentioning first, for it was outstanding, alas negatively. It essentially relied on two ideas, neither of them novel, both overused. Idea No. 1 was the use of light fabric curtains, draped across the entire stage, then falling down to the stage, then picked up, dragged around, and carried off. Upon first use in the overture, the billowing curtain falling down—first when suspended, then when released—was a visual treat. The second time it was still impressive, if less so. The third, fourth, and fifth times this element was employed, it became more and more meaningless. Occasions six, seven, eight, nine, and finally ten were comically repetitive. A spin of the curtain theme was the idea to dress the chorus (peasants, minstrels, angels, "fire," etc.) in bedsheet chain gangs of six or eight each. ("One musical body with many heads" was the idea behind it.) Add to that the requisite chorus of any self-respecting Russian opera of "Slava, slava" (Glory, glory), and the third act scene of "curtain—bed-sheet—slava-slava" was laugh-out-loud funny.

Still, should we have been thankful to those twenty instances of free-flowing curtains everywhere? At least they did something that no one and nothing else did: move. In the process of trying to "present the opera in the style of great oratorio" (so says the director), whatever life left in the work was sucked out by stiff figures that marched to their designated location, sang their part and remained standing there, until the prescribed exit. The vocally impressive Archbishop of Feodor Kuznetsoz, a tall and lanky figure, stuck out especially and at times the whole effort reminded me of a school play where nine-year-old Abraham Lincolns walk out on stage and, slightly bent back, declaim the Gettysburg address to parents struggling to suspend their disbelief.

Harsh? Don't take my word for it, but instead director Lamberto Pugelli's, whom I quote from the program notes: "As a director, it thus seemed pointless to spend too much time worrying about choreography and set design." Yes, sir, and it shows.

Idea No. 2 was the use of images superimposed on the falling curtains and the back walls. That created some very fine effects and moods but also ran out of steam. Some images were oddly truncated, perhaps in an imitation of film, and sometimes, as in the interminable second act, they did not make any easily discernable sense. The entire production, which could fit into two suitcases, was not just slight on material but also creativity and imagination. That a "skimpy" and portable production does not have to be such a sad compromise was proven by the controversial but exhilarating set of the Kirov's Boris Godunov.

The program notes inform us that "of all Tchaikovsky's ten operas, none show a stronger Western orientation than The Maid of Orleans." I admit to never having seen or heard The Voyevoda, Undine, The Oprichnik, Kuznets Vakula, and Charodeyka, but I can assure anyone that even Mazeppa is more Western than the Maid. The Meyerbeer-like grand setting of a German text does not make the result Western. The music and the entire feel of it is Russian, from the Czar Charles VII to the addition of a love story for Jean that eventually proves her downfall.

What made the night worth spending at the Opera, however, was the singing that ranged from fine to excellent. Special mention must go to Maïra Kerey's Agnes Sorel. Stunning clarity and beauty of voice have me hope that opera lovers outside of her native Kazakhstan will see her more often. Corey Evan Rotz marvelously performed Raymond, especially in the third act and was by far the better of only two tenors on the stage. The other one, Victor Lutsiuk as Charles VII, had to deal with one of the most unsympathetic, unthankful roles in opera: neither good nor evil but merely pathetic. He made the best of it with his shuffling walk and cute little gestures that lightened the mood. The army of baritones and basses was satisfying throughout. Vladimir Moroz as Dunois, Evgeny Nikitin as Thibaut d'Arc, and Sergei Leiferkus as Lionel especially so.

And then, of course, there was Mirella Freni. Her performance of Joan, especially as concerns all notes in the upper register, would have been an achievement for any soprano. But having had a career lasting many more years than most of her colleagues have lived, playing a 17-year old at 71, it was a staggering achievement. Her aria at the end of Act I and her duet with Lionel in Act IV were particular highlights. Which brings up the question of whether this production is worth attending.

If you are planing to go to only one opera this season, skip the Maid of Orleans and see The Magic Flute or Samson et Dalila instead. But if it isn't a matter of "either/or," even a mediocre Maid is worth seeing when it is likely your only chance to see this opera live and possibly your last opportunity to hear Mirella Freni on stage. Chances do to so are on April 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 11th. (Check the Washington National Opera's Web site to see when and if Maestra Freni is performing.)

1.4.05

Orpheus at Strathmore 

(published first at ionarts)

After another one of Mr. Pearle’s unnecessarily dull fund-raising speeches, the sound of Orpheus dancing through the Holberg Suite were pure bliss. Rich, plump basses and clean, vibrant violins gave Grieg’s musical retrospective both: the requisite freshness and lush sheen necessary to please.

Orpheus had always been – literally – a household name for me, having been exposed to their recordings since the onset of my musical consciousness. 33 years old and with musicians having come and gone, the leaderless troupe at WPAS’ concert at Strathmore last Thursday was every bit as impressive as I remember them from vinyl days.

Barbara Bonney
By sheer coincidence I had just listened to Rene Jacobs’ forthcoming Haydn recording which includes the short secular oratoria “Scena di Berenice”. A smash hit when Haydn performed it in London, it has since been rather neglected. Jacobs has Bernada Fink perform, Orpheus was joined by a magnificent Barbara Bonney. Covering the entire dynamic range with ease, the soprano I particularly admire in Alban Berg and Richard Strauss did Haydn proud with her stunning performance of this little gem.

The following Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Barber is likely the finest American orchestral song – and only Domick Argento’s Casa Guidi comes to mind as being similarly engaging and beautiful. Summer of 1915 is one of those lucky works that has always been well served on record, but hearing it live with a voice as Bonney’s added another dimension of joy, even if you couldn't follow the poem's text. In full control of every line and always with plenty reserve, no matter at what level of volume Mme. Bonney filled all of Strathmore Hall with her luminous sound, she more than deserved the audience’s rapturous applause.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 (A-major, K 201) is seductive Mozart on the right side of the cusp of juvenilia. Very, very pretty indeed, its mellow beauty and lighthearted nature make for a perfect musical desert: Not too sweet, not too heavy, not too substantive. Orpheus churned out a most amiable (this is not damnation with faint praise) performance that capped one of the most delightful musical meals enjoyed by any of those who found their way to the half-filled concert hall.

For early birds, there had been a pre-concert talk of NPR’s and the Washington Post’s Gail Wain. I had no opportunity to listen to her musings on the Barber, but was told that it was a “riveting” and “marvelous” talk. The person who told me so should have known, it was… Gail Wain. Joe Banno's review in the Washington Post can be read here. The next concert of the Washinton Performing Arts Society Lang Lang at the Kennedy Center on Saturday afternoon.

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