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30.5.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 30 ) 

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F. Chopin, Sonata No.2, Barcarolle op.60, Études op.10, Nelson Freire
There are many excellent choices for the Chopin’s Études (op.10) that are available. The literal brilliance of Maurizio Pollini, the velvety virtuosity of Vladimir Ashkenazy (the 50’s recording, if you can find it) or Murray Perahia’s version, as smooth as Häagen Dasz at room temperature all deserve, even require being heard. Still, Nelson Freire, one of the finest and somewhat underrated pianists of our time, adds something new. In his new Chopin recording on Decca, the Études are probably the finest of his contributions to the Chopin catalogue. Instead of dazzling the listener by emphasizing the 10-note arpeggios of Étude no.1, he plays up the bass line’s melody, presenting a very different side of that oft-heard piece and also setting the tone for what is to follow. His beautiful, bell-like ringing bass notes are the glory of the entire set. Virtuosity for its own sake is shunned in favour of a round, full interpretation that brims with musicality. His mature rendering of the second sonata is very fine, but does not move me quite as much as Pollini does (especially in his live performance at the Kennedy Center a few months ago who made even the funeral march sound fascinatingly new) and is understandably less wild, puppy-like as the young Leif-Ove Andsnes’ early recording, just re-released on a budget Virgin disc. The Barcarolle op.60, wedged between the two more substantial works is much more than just a filler and reminds me, if faintly, of Claudio Arrau’s regal, patrician version. For anyone who can’t get enough of extraordinarily well-played Chopin, Nelson Freire’s recital is a rewarding choice. Offering just one set of the Etudes and one sonata, however, it will be less attractive as a first version of these works as it would almost necessitate doubling up these pieces when exploring the op.25 Études and Sonata No.3 later on.

27.5.05

Who Needs the Four Seasons? 

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A. Vivaldi, Le Quattro Stagioni, Concerto Italiano, R. Alessandrini
If you have to think hard when given the option of being shot in the head or listening to another Four Seasons, you feel like I do – and you also need this recording of, yes, the Four Seasons. When I saw it being the Gramophone Editor’s choice well over a year ago, I thought that to be a good argument for the alcohol-free workplace over there. But sure enough, they had it right. This isn’t your average, pretty Four Seasons… in fact, I am not sure if it is the Four Seasons at all, so different does the Concerto Italiano make these first four concerti of the op.8 set (Il Cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione) sound under Rinaldo Alessandrini.

The vivid and very present, rich sound is just the least of factors. The vitality of the music-making leaps from the speakers and had me laugh out loud at several moments out of sheer amazement of what that original instrument band gets out of this most overplayed work of them all. Rather than trying to play all the notes as beautifully as they can (if you actually want to ‘waste your time’ on such a performance, Gil Shaham and Orpheus/DG are not likely to be beaten in the beauty-department), they go for an approach as evocative of the underlying sonnets as possible. The sonnets give the four seasons line-by-line instructions as to what this program music is all about. Additionally, the Le Cène edition of the orchestral parts gives yet more, almost note-by-note, instructions. While still hitting all the right notes, Concerto Italiano goes for these instructions and the result is breathtaking.

Many moments in the performance are far away from conventional ‘pretty’. There is aggression, discord (listen to the opening of Fall and eeriness. Try the second movement of Summer (track 5) where the violins playing sul tasto perfectly get the heat flimmering (???) on a hot day, with the inevitable thunderstorm approaching until it breaks lose with fat raindrops quenching the earth’s thirst in the third movement (track 6).

The orchestra and especially the string players are not musicians on this recording; they are actors. With some parts, you could probably scare your children… but mostly it will evoke a sense of awe of what can be done with music, what music can do, what music should be: Pure joy. Do yourself a favour and rediscover.

Naïve / op.111 OP30363

22.5.05

Selig sind, die da Leid tragen - Brahms' Requiem with the Choral Arts Society 

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J. Brahms, Ein Deutsches Requiem, EBS, Monteverdi Choir, Gardiner
Brahms' Requiem is a hauntingly beautiful piece, but when described it as "tedious", I can't help but gleefully nod on the inside. Along with Brahms' d-minor Piano Concerto, I miss then coherent line of musical and dramatic development, an arch that compels the listener to pay attention from start to finish. But just like the piano concerto (and unlike the Missa Solemnis, for example), it contains such unadulterated beauty that during a live performance I usually surrender to it entirely, anyway. When played and sung as well as The Choral Arts Society of Washington did at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall last Thursday, being impressed by the German Requiem is inevitable. There were times when I would have liked a more secure wood-wind section (especially in I. Selig sind die Toten) and a here and there a bit more than just 'competence'. The 180-some throats were well coordinated by Norman Scribner. The bombastic climax of II - Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras, my least favorite section of the work, was rousing. Baritone David Arnold who sang his part from memory did not quite fill the Concert Hall and was occasionally covered by the orchestra but his skillful performance showed his experience with the music. Twyla Robinson's voice un-intrusively fit into the choral surroundings. For her nice timbre, one might like a little more personality from this promising voice.

20.5.05

The Call of the Cantata Answered 

(published first at ionarts)

Ionarts’ tireless pursuit of finding the best music around and covering as many interesting concerts as possible had us at Samson et Dalila on Tuesday night, in New York the next day to catch the last of this seasons’ Bachanalia concerts at Merkin Hall and back on Thursday for the German Requiem at the Kennedy Center. The Bachanalia concert was of interest because of the premiere of Benjamin C. S. Boyle’s latest composition, the cantata “For To One In Paradise”.

Before that work, modeled on Bach’s Magnificat, was heard, the audience in the well filled, acoustically excellent Merkin Hall across from Lincoln center was treated to Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin BWV 1060 which is, if you wish, the retro-original-transcription from the only surviving score in its consequent two-harpsichord version. Double bassist Paul Harris marvelously played throughout the work, even after his G-string (the one on the double bass, please) snapped with a loud plunk. Not the least to his own amusement, he improvised his fingering accordingly for the rest of the night. Oboist Vladimir Lande’s contribution was beyond reproach on every level – something that cannot be said for his soloist partner, artistic director Nina Beilina who detracted a little from the over-all very pleasing performance of the Bachanalia band.

Exchanging his oboe for a baton, Mr. Lande led the players in the raison d’etre of the New York excursion, Boyle’s cantata. I had a reason to expect much from this work, based on other compositions of his, especially his outstanding Edgar Allen Poe song cycle for baritone and piano Lenoriana. As it turns out, “To One in Paradise”, one of the few Poe poems not yet set to music, came to his attention during the composition of that cycle but proved to substantial to fit within the restrictions of the baritone songs. The commission of a cantata by Bachanalia must have come very conveniently – and this work was born. It did not disappoint.

Of the neo-romantic school Boyle may be (with teachers like Foss, Maw, Del Tredici and an audible influence of Rorem’s that label is almost inevitable), but whether in neo(-neo)-classical (like his “Kreutzer Sonata Variations”) or neo-baroque works, one cannot miss for a second that these are fresh, modern compositions that service almost everything I love in ‘music with a pulse’. The cantata does not pander to the ear in the syrupy way a John Rutter does, it has substance and something to say. ‘Substance’ is of course difficult to gauge, but by the measure of being logical, clearly structured and developing new musical ideas, it passes with flying colors as far as these ears are concerned. A contrapuntal work, it is one large musical palindrome, culminating (structurally, if not musically) in the central fugue “For alas! Alas!”, itself a palindrome over its inversion.

The vocal soloists, with the exception of counter tenor Augustine Mercante whose cotton-candy voice is of the namby-pamby kind I rather dislike in counter tenors, were very good. Shari Alise Wilson’s clear, chamber-like voice befitted the character of the cantata very much, tenor Jeffrey Dinsmore and especially baritone Andrew Cummings equally delivered far more than adequate performances. At times faint reminiscences to John Adam’s “El Niño” could be made out, if for no other reason than the relative scarcity of cantata/oratorio style compositions of the 21st century to which to compare “To One in Paradise”. The lyrical treatment of E. A. Poe’s texts became beautifully plain in the concluding chorale of “And all my days are trances”, offering a bit of respite in an otherwise very driven work.

The two jazzy works after the intermission – a Ruslan Agababeayev arrangement of Ravel’s “The Magic Garden” from the Mother Goose Suite for saxophone and string orchestra (Ofer Assav on tenor sax) and Scott Joplin rags arranged for string orchestra by William Zinn – were pleasant and unpleasant, respectively, not quite as well played as the previous works and none-too noteworthy. They were a lighthearted and Bachanalia-atypical concert and season finale thrown in for the board-members’ and sponsor’s entertainment – and to that end they worked rather well. Even with these two cute ‘throw-aways’, the concert must be considered to have been a success on account of the first half and its promulgation of new music – something that will continue during next season’s mix of Bach, Shostakovich, Arensky, Gould (!), some of which will come in the guise of arrangements (by Rudolf Barshai, Benjamin Boyle et al.).

For those who thought that Joplin’s “Entertainer” for String Orchestra was phenomenal fun, the encore “Pizzicato Polka” must have been sheer heaven. Sadly, its sweetly lyrical legato lines were seriously under-accentuated.

18.5.05

St. Petersburg on the Potomac 

Having made quite a name for themselves over the last years, not the least through their now complete Shostakovich cycle on hyperion, the St. Petersburg String Quartet stopped by the National Gallery of Art in a program of Mendelssohn, Smetana and – delightfully – Shostakovich. Mendelssohn’s quartet no. 2, op.13 was recently presented in D.C. by the Pacifica Quartet (see Ionarts review) – but it’s a work one can’t hear often enough.

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F. Mendelssohn, String Quartets, Talich Quartet
Founding member Alla Aranovskaya on first violin very much played first fiddle - taking leadership in (or, less charitably put: dominating) three works, reminding me of the Chilingirian Quartet. If the Mendelssohn started out quite nicely, it showed a few problems as it progressed – notably in Boris Vaynar’s occasionally unsteady viola playing or wherever Mme. Aranovskaya’s tone crossed the line from precise and steely to sour. Leonid Shukayev’s lucid playing was consistently beautiful and supportive.

It is good to see Mendelssohn’s quartets really take off (the Emerson gave a taste of it just this Thursday at the Strathmore Hall – as Ionarts-reviewed) – because they are all exquisite. If I don’t dare claim that they are musically superior to Schumann’s or Brahms’ string quartets, I’ll at least point out that they are far, far easier to enjoy and also needn’t be played at near perfect levels to convince.

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D. Shostakovich, Quartets 5, 7 & 9, St.Petersburg SQ4t
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B. Smetana, String Quartets, Panocha Quartet
Is there something to or in Shostakovich (and Bartók) that makes performances of his quartets generally stand out and played better than works of other composers? Just like I’ve hardly ever heard a bad or even mediocre performance of a Bartók quartet, I’ve yet to hear sub-par Shostakovich… even where the works around it were not played all that radiantly. It’s not a matter of not needing to play DSCH well of his music to be enjoyable, it seems difficult not to play it well. Does it demand (and get) more practice and concentrations? Is there a sense among performers that Haydn can be played after a night out – but Shostakovich needing a bit extra effort and alertness? Whatever the case, the St. Petersburgers were indeed a good notch above the Mendelssohn in their performance of the DSCH quartet no. 9. With its three Allegretto movements and an Andantino wedged in at second position, it sparkles with that rhythmical quality that, once seduced by it, will never let you sit still again during one of his chamber works.

Over sheer endless pedal points, Smetana’s first (of two) quartet, “From My Life” in e-minor started the second half. Written eight years before the composer’s death in 1884, it already shows his bouts with deafness and perhaps even syphilis. The quartet’s depiction of ‘inner hearing’ – Semtana’s trying to musically depict the sensation of deafness – got an eerie touch from the reverberant acoustic of the West Garden Court that, on the downside, was also responsible for the wash of a sound that dominated most of the concert. The amiable performance of this quartet stuffed with musical references served the enjoyment of the audience well – much like the Mendelssohn.

17.5.05

A Child of Our Time? 

(published first at ionarts)

Other Articles:

Tim Page, 'A Child of Our Time' Indeed (Washington Post, May 4)

Charles T. Downey, Tippett... Tippett Good (Ionarts, May 7)

Daniel Ginsberg, 'A Child of Our Time' With a Story Well Told (Washington Post, May 10)
Dennis Marks, in his program notes to the Washington Chorus's performance of Sir Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time on Mothers' Day, calls the work (and is unlikely to have been the first one to do so) very aptly a "secular act of faith." Ödon von Horvath's Ein Kind unserer Zeit supplied the title and the theme of suffering peoples after war. The impetus to write the work came from the desperate murder of a German diplomat in Paris by Herschel Grynspan and the state-sponsored pogrom on November 11th, 1938—the Reichskristallnacht that took the murder as its excuse.

Its pacifist, anti-tyranny (the irony does not escape us, 60 years later, that pacifism in the face of tyrannies may not be the answer, but it must have been understood by Tippett as well, writing the work during air raids in London's bomb shelters. The music is as "tame" as anything Tippett ever wrote, not the least due to his models, Handel's Messiah and Bach's oratorios. Negro spirituals provide the basis for choruses that weld together the individual parts and turn the work—despite all claims to the secular and agnostic nature of A Child—safely toward the religious side. To a libretto that takes specific events and then universalizes them, the chorus and orchestra create a dystopian sound world that always offers glimmers of hope and optimism.

The four fine soloists were Laquita Mitchell (soprano), Elizabeth Bishop (mezzo), Don Frazure (tenor), and Gordon Hawkins (bass). Though the least distinguished and experienced among her colleagues (both Ms. Bishop and Mr. Hawkins have graced the stages of the MET and Deutsche Oper Berlin), the young Ms. Mitchell was the most persuasive. If nuance and expressiveness were a bit on the short side, one could not miss her voice's glory and potential. The true star, however, was the Washington Chorus. As with the orchestra, the many rehearsals I am certain it took to perform this challenging work showed. Impressive and with vigor, the voices dug into the score under Maestro Robert Shafer's dedicated leadership.

The Washington Chorus ought to be given much credit for tackling this piece in the first place. They are, to my knowledge, the only major arts institution in Washington that has contributed to the Tippett centenary. That it was quite as extraordinary a performance made it a spectacularly successful outing, worthy of the highest praise. If only more people had chosen this admittedly strange Mothers' Day outing on a glorious Sunday: the Kennedy Center's concert hall was only half full, if that.

Texts (necessary, given the generally slack diction among performers) were on display like D.C. traffic announcements, only that this one, on the left side of the stage, didn't announce, "Already 9.846 deaths on American highways this year" but "in the dread terror, they have brought me near death." Come to think of it, perhaps there were more similarities than I thought...

This season being all but over (only a showboat performance of "Murder and Other Operatic Madness" at the Wolf Trap on June 9th will take place within this season), some diligent and exciting programming is shown for next season, when the Washington Chorus has two interesting concerts at the Kennedy Center. They'll do an inevitable Carmina Burana, but they couple this November 9th performance with Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms (Time Magazine's "Composition of the Century"). For Palm Sunday 2006 they offer Poulenc's magnificent Gloria, his Motets for a Time of Penitence, and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.

13.5.05

Bruckner, Like You've Never Heard Before 

Sir Roger Norrington

Sir Roger Norrington
On a night in which Washington offered many fine and desirable concerts, I was where my calling took me: At the Kennedy Center for Bruckner with the NSO. Sir Roger Norrington conducting is always an event – but when he takes on Bruckner, the Brucknerian must fear for the worst. The “worst” in this case being a playing style that conforms (or allegedly conforms) to the way these symphonies were performed during Bruckner’s time. Or, to be more precise: How this particular symphony would have been performed, had it been performed at all, since Norrington opted for the ‘original original’ version of Bruckner’s 4th – the 1874 Nowak edition that did not receive an outing in that form until 1975 with the Munich Philharmonic. There are only a few vailable recordings of that version, so that even the most Bruckner versed audience members had never heard the 4th performed this way. (They are López-Cobos on Telarc, Russell-Davies on a brand new Arte Nova and Inbal on Elektra, nla.)

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A. Bruckner, Symphony No.4, 1874, D.Russell-Davies
Even if we find it unthinkable today, Roger Norrington is right in his assertion that neither Mahler nor Bruckner have heard their symphonies played with the orchestra playing vibrato throughout. (He put this forward in his New York Times article on February 16th, 2003 titled “Time to Rid the Orchestras of the Shakes”.) “Worst” also means that Norrington not only writes about rolling back the clock on continuously slower and slower performances of the German heavy romantics (where many equate ‘slow’ with ‘reverent’) but actually does something about it. If someone worships at the Sergiu Celibidache-temple of Bruckner interpretation, this must all seem like a sacrilege. Even so, we must hear for ourselves. (Aside, Philip Herreweghe’s recording of the 7th symphony was very good, too, and I had been similarly suspicious.)

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A. Bruckner, Symphony No.4, 1874, J.López-Cobos
But before my Bruckner came along, a Schubert 8th “Unfinished” was presented. With patient, astonished bemusement Maestro Norrington watched as droves of latecomers filled the seats of the Concert Hall between the Allegro and the Andante – and he got impromptu applause for being a good sport. Schubert’s truncated symphony is not one of the great ‘unfinished’ works – even though it is the one that most people associate with that title. In his excellent and exhaustive program notes, Richard Freed suggests that the symphony isn’t really unfinished. I’ll agree that it isn’t, but in that case, it’s not a symphony but two splendid, isolated orchestral movements. (As it is, ‘unfinished’ symphonies have the tendency to elicit the idea that they are somehow not ‘unfinished’ at all – which is probably only a late rationalization after hearing it in its incomplete form so many times.) Its popularity is deserved on grounds of beauty of the two movements, its recording prominence is helped by its convenient 20 minute length, making it a perfect filler, especially in LP days. Under Norrington – sans vibrato, of course – the Schubert was lucid, transparent, mostly lean, altogether very nice (in the best sense) and the NSO with the slightly stringent sound of steel strung strings scratched without vibrato played well, too.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner
For the Bruckner, Sir Roger opted for a bit more control with the help of a baton. The poor, exposed solo horn that opens the symphony over shimmering strings was taxed a bit too much – but that was soon overcome. What was not overcome, however, was an odd sense of balance of the orchestra that had signature parts of the symphony sink into its surroundings and on the hand unearthed parts that one never consciously hears… though I’ll admit that I don’t know what part of that was due to the playing and conducting or the different version. Much of this was very interesting, like seeing a favorite building from a different angle for the first time. But it was also a building where the parts didn’t quite seem to fit together – as though they were glued together just a bit off, or puzzle pieced forced to fit when they don’t quite. Together with occasional scrawny playing may be attributed to too few rehearsals.

Not surprisingly, Norrington blazed through the symphony like a Siberian greyhound with the trees far apart. But even where the playing was no particular joy (it was the first time I have heard concertmaster Nurith Bar-Josef play a solo part anything less than stunning), the tempi and the different version were very interesting. The nickname “Romantic” (coming from the revised Scherzo lacking in this version) no longer applied. The Allegro became a real allegro, and those who consider Bruckner the ‘proto-minimalist’ got plenty of support from Norrington’s interpretation. Repeated string arpeggios and the repetition of short musical phrases to build up force were especially noticeable in the first and fourth movement.

Looking at the actual instructions, one ought not to have been surprised by the brisk second movement. Andante as it may be, it’s also quasi Allegretto. This Bruckner had – little did we know such a thing existed – four fast movements. I am not sure I would have fallen in love with Bruckner if first exposed to him in this form (indeed, my very first concert ever was Bruckner’s 4th in a matinee of the Bavarian State Orchestra – I didn’t quite fall in love with it then, either, as a five-year old), but returning to this symphony and hearing such a differing take on it was most refreshing, especially where the first movement was concerned. The fast run-up to the movements’ end was smashing and continued even through the terraced dynamics that make continuity so difficult in Bruckner.

The third movement marked Sehr schnell – Trio: Im gleichen Tempo (“Very fast – Trio: At the same speed”) in the 1874 version is completely different from the popular Scherzo. Bewegt – Trio: Nicht zu schnell, keinesfalls schleppend (“Scherzo. Moving – Trio: Not too fast, certainly not dragging”). No one needs to tell Norrington “Sehr schnell” twice… before you do, he’s a third into the movement. The brass had its finest moments here, brisk and pungent. If I had asked myself why we never hear this movement, though, the performance gave the answer. There can’t be a doubt that Bruckner, for all the butchering and misleading advice that well-meaning friends serviced his symphonies with, improved the fourth symphony dramatically from its first to its second version.

The fourth movement, here an Allegro moderato as opposed to the Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (“Finale: Moved, but not too fast”), is a patchy affair and sounded more tedious than glorious – at least in the beginning. After the ‘proto-minimalism’ rearing its head again, the last three, four minutes were cohesive again and offered a fine end to a concert I feel rather conflicted about.
The interest of the performance certainly outweighed the continuous deficiencies of the playing. But the interest for me was hearing a work that I am very familiar with in a version I didn’t know at all. I suppose that most people in the audience had rarely heard the Bruckner fourth before – and I am note sure if they were well served by this decidedly inferior version. I am worried that it may have scarred more people off Bruckner than it converted. To those either know their Bruckner very well or else promise to keep an open mind about it, though, the performance is a must – since it’ll be the only time they’ll likely hear this piece in this version. Performances will take place this afternoon at 1:30 PM and on Saturday at 8:00.

Read Daniel Ginsberg's review in the Post here.

Barenboim: Mahler Mosaic; Mozart Magic 

(published first at ionarts)

Photo by Todd Rosenburg

Barenboim in Action
On his farewell tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim stopped by Washington this Tuesday to give the audience a taste of both his skills as a soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 and as a conductor in Mahler's 9th symphony. The beauty of the concerto, K. 488 in A major, is such that it is virtually impossible for the work to sound anything less than delightful, regardless of what performance practices one prefers.

With the CSO, it wasn't going to be Mozart-light, but a concerto with meat on its bones. That it had an airy touch and spring in its step goes to the credit of Barenboim and this splendid band, as Mozart is far more difficult to do really well, especially with bigger orchestral bodies whose bread and butter is Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, et al.

There were a few oddly pulled phrases and uniquely accented notes that neither added nor detracted and between them, Maestro Barenboim piloted this jewel most enjoyably. In keeping with the orchestra's approach, it was muscular playing, not afraid of digging into the Steinway, though never plodding and mercifully far from the "Dresden china" custom of playing that Mozart's works suffer through all too often. Some may have liked to hear more colors and fleeter notes in the Adagio, but to these ears the occasional lush delving of Barenboim and Co. was most welcome.

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W. A. Mozart, Piano Concerti Nos. 13, 20, 23, 24, 27, Clara Haskil / Paul Sacher / VPO
Barenboim has made it quite clear why he is leaving his post in Chicago (too many extramusical activities required of a conductor in cultural institutions in this country), but in case anyone thought it may be lack of energy on the part of the 63-year-old, watching Barenboim's putting everything into his conducting and playing of the Allegro assai should have proven such ideas nonsense.

Mahler's 9th, one of the greatest symphonic statements of the 20th century, had just been played by Leonard Slatkin and the NSO, but it's a work I don't tire of. (Read the Ionarts review of MTT's recent recording here.) Thinking Barenboim to be just about the best Wagner conductor alive, but rather disliking his Bruckner, I was excited to hear how he handled Mahler. Alas, that excitement waned almost immediately and gave way to distinct disappointment.

The first movement, roughly 25 minutes long, though it seemed even quicker, featured mechanical brass and bass notes, and the rhythm of the opening felt like "left-right, left-right" rather than forward dancing steps. It had majestic and robust touches in the D major theme of the Andante comodo, but shrill clarinets and a few other sections were off in this movement and never really sounded sure-footed. It took until the first climax some four minutes into the symphony that the performance became more than just note playing, and that was achieved by pure force and speed in what was a very fast D minor theme of the same movement.

Other Articles:

Daniel Ginsberg, Daniel Barenboim, Going Out in Style (Washington Post, May 8)

Tim Smith, 3-M night: Mozart, Mahler, masterful (Baltimore Sun, May 12)

Tim Page, Chicago Symphony's Rainbow At End of a Stormy Reign (Washington Post, May 12)
The slow parts especially ran parallel to this listener, neither pulling me along nor exuding the feeling of propulsion that I have heard in this symphony, even at slower tempi. Gear changes were not particularly smooth, at least not considering the orchestral excellence of the Chicago SO and the consequent high expectations. Many musical moments were clipped, lacked continuity, and rather offered only snippets. Individual bits were expertly and excitingly done, especially the loud and fast parts involving the thundering brass (no surprise there...), but then there was a fair share of washy sounds, too. Horn calls were pasted on top of the symphony, rather than emerging organically from the belly of the beast. The lilting of the end of the first movement became a hobble, one leg shorter than the other.

In the first movement already, I started wondering whether gradients in music are grossly exaggerated by critics so as to distinguish one performance from another, or whether they are actually that important; the answer being "probably yes" to both questions. Can a performance of Mahler's 9th by a great conductor with a great orchestra really be that much worse than other accounts by great conductors with great or lesser orchestras? Would not a Daniel Barenboim, with more musical understanding in his pinky than I shall ever hope to acquire, know better or be aware of what he is doing? What if other, more experienced critics disagree?

Valid enough questions, especially since the focus on small differences from performance to performance makes it all the more important that one be right in identifying them. These are not so much questions to find definite answers for, but to be asked continuously to keep critics on their toes.

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G. Mahler, Symphony No. 9, HvK
Meanwhile, the hard-driven second movement (Im Tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers) wore heavy boots and had a determined, forced quality to it. There was nothing gemächlich about it, even at almost 17 minutes, and nothing surprising or jolting, either.

The third movement, Rondo-Burleske - Allegro Assai - Sehr trotzig, started with the booming brass lunging itself up the stairs, but generally its 12'30" made for the most successful (because it was the loudest, fastest, and most boisterous) of the movements. Still, I found it rough-hewn, lacking in nuance, plowing right through the music without a natural flow.

The fourth movement starts with an exhaling sound and offers the only inner piece found in Mahler. The main theme was rich and creamy, finally flowed, was well shaped and very pleasingly luscious. The sections after that were not welded together at all. Intonation problems remained, and the slower second theme was back to the routine, the bits and pieces. Only isolated moments had true greatness in them, but in Mahler, especially in the 9th, moments don't count, only the whole. It can't afford to be breathless, and taken as a whole, the performance was far, far less than the sum of its parts. Slatkin and the NSO gave, surprisingly, a far more lucid and more pleasing performance.

12.5.05

Rock Like it's 1599 

(published first at ionarts)

In a program of "Seventeenth-Century Dutch Soundscape" titled "The World of Jacob van Eyck" at the National Gallery of Art's West Garden Court, compositions from over a dozen composers ranging roughly from 1560 to 1670 were showcased by the early musicke group The Baltimore Consort.

The concert, as so often the case at the NGA, was in conjunction with a current exhibition, Jan de Bray and the Classical Tradition. Listening to the members of the Consort tune their instruments was already more than just dipping one's toes into the promised soundscape. But as soon as the six musicians began to play, pure beauty arose from the wondrously cacophonic and (nowadays) exotic noises of lute strumming, recorder tuning, cittern plucking, and crumhorn adjusting. I wish the audience would have realized sooner that not every bit of a program with 23 parts ought to have been applauded, but even though the players consciously seemed to play right through their sets in the second half, they evidently enjoyed the warm reception. Admittedly, for the quality of the offerings, neither audience nor players could be blamed.

Soon into the concert I was struck by an awe-inspiring sense of how these six musicians are curators of an art; less historical preservationists but exponents of a time past, very much alive through their passionate, committed, and—above all—excellent playing! To single out any one of the Consort's players would be doing injustice to another. All played the instrument(s) with the most consummate skill. They are Mary Anne Ballard on treble, tenor, and bass viols and rebec; Mark Cudek on cittern, recorder, crumhorn, bass viol and percussion; Larry Lipkis on tenor and bass viols, recorders, and crumhorn; Ronn McFarlane on the lute; and Mindy Rosenfeld on several flutes, recorders, pipes, and the crumhorn. To these five multitalented instrumentalists came José Lemos, definitely one of the finer countertenors I have had the pleasure to hear. Very animated (and stage-aware), he has great volume and a pleasingly rich, masculine tone. As a surprising bonus, his voice and the ensemble were actually helped by the usually counterproductive acoustics of the venue. Whether it was the set of strategically placed sound panels behind them or the style of music, I do not know, but with an echo and reverb that never became intrusive, it all sounded glorious.

Some sets of music—for example, a selection of Elizabethan works that were likely heard in the Netherlands of Jacob van Eyck's time, or several recorder tunes preserved by the flute virtuoso van Eyck—were given informative, short explanations by the Baltimore Consort's members, who also introduced their instruments. If I randomly pick one of a complete concert full of highlights, Claudio Monterverdi's "Si dolce è il tormento" showed off Mr. Lemos, the players behind him, and the type of music in the best possible fashion. Other works similarly exposed the other players on their particular instruments.

From John Dowland to John Playford, Giulio Caccini, and several other old masters, the program proved how much fun, how irresistible a concert of early music can be, and not just to the initiated. Directly after some Tippett, it was the perfect concert to bring my musical universe back into harmony. Whoever missed this concert did so at their own peril.

11.5.05

Bruckner: The Devine and Beautiful 

(published first at ionarts)

Available from Amazon:
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A. Bruckner, Symphony No. 3
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A. Bruckner, Symphony No. 4, Günter Wand, Berlin Philharmonic
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A. Bruckner, Symphony No. 5, Günter Wand, Berlin Philharmonic
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A. Bruckner, Symphonies Nos. 3–9, Te Deum, Mass in F, Munich Philharmonic
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A. Bruckner, Symphony No. 7, Herbert von Karajan, Vienna Philharmonic
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A. Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, Günter Wand, Berlin Philharmonic
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A. Bruckner, Symphony No. 9, Günter Wand, Berlin Philharmonic
Goethe, it is said, called architecture "frozen music." If we turn the statement around, we have a description of music as "fluid architecture," an always changing, living structure. No music fits this description better than that of Anton Bruckner. Bruckner's huge symphonies are often lumped together with the equally gargantuan music of Richard Wagner or Gustav Mahler. A look at the blueprints shows that they are more different than alike.

Mozart's music may be the harmonious equivalent to countryside palaces or the occasional Lustschloss or grand neoclassical academies. Mahler quipped that he composed music in his symphonies that made the Alps superfluous. Richard Strauss gave us musico-architectural impressions of his study, kitchen, bedroom, and possibly even the smallest room in his house, but all these analogies are stretching Goethe's quote a bit. Not so when it comes to the arch-Austrian, arch-Catholic Bruckner.

No gothic cathedral is as cathedral-like as is his 8th Symphony. His nine mature symphonies (there are two more, "0" and "00," the former of which is not really a lesser work than Nos. 1 and 2) are monumental structures. Broad and somber, earnest and yet filled with a glory that comes to the fore, much like when visiting the Dome of Cologne or Notre Dame in Paris. They are architectural documents of faith, only purer, less tainted than the history of any actual cathedral would be.

On the surface, Bruckner could be mentioned in the same vein as Mahler and Wagner. Big-boned late Germanic Romanticism, employing huge forces in the service of music that can appear self-important. In fact, by quoting themes of Wagner's operas in his third symphony, Bruckner sealed his reputation as a staunch pro-Wagnerian. Unwittingly pitched in the Wagner-Brahms wars of the time, Bruckner was moved much closer to his German colleague than he probably would have liked, for all his admiration of Wagner's music. (In consequence, many well-meaning Wagnerian friends of Bruckner ended up revising and "helping" his symphonies, trying to turn them into "Wagner without words.")

But Bruckner never—not even in the most corrupted editions of his symphonies(*)—was that close to Wagner, musically. Nor do his hour-plus symphonies, scored for 100-member (and above) orchestras, have more in common with Mahler than their size, length, and number. For those who wish to hear "Wagner without words," the four early Dvořák symphonies or the symphonies of Norwegian composer Christoph Sinding are mandatory listening. For those who would like Mahler-like works, the singular symphony of Hans Rott, some Zemlinsky, and Reznik works should best satisfy that desire.

Bruckner, meanwhile, distinguishes himself from either Mahler or Wagner foremost through his different eschatology. Far from being a private religious matter, the view of the world after this life has had a profound impact on all three composers. Wagner never quite knew what the answers were for him: rejection of Christianity, influential stops at Schopenhauer and Buddhism ended in an eventual, contorted return to Christianity, resulting in one of the most twisted personal religious statements, in the form of one of the most sublime musical statements, Parsifal. At the center of it was always Wagner, not God. There is a constant searching quality that gives Wagner's works their unique quality of having no real end, and not needing one. Mahler, too, was far from spiritually secure. His Jewish background and later embrace of it certainly contributed to this, and if his biography would not give clues, his music does. He, too, never found: wondered, yearned, all of which was audibly made manifest in his symphonies which are half Angst, half struggle.

In Bruckner, there is none of this, whatsoever. While often mischaracterized as a simpleton, a musical farmer with a quill, it seems true that Bruckner harbored no pressing religious conflicts in his chest and had few, if any, unanswered questions about God. His music is plain, honest, open. Where Mahler seems to say, in anguish often, "Who am I? Where am I, and where am I to go?," Bruckner's music says, "Here I am, God: take me." His works are like the offerings of a humble servant, and despite their gargantuan structure, they retain a certain simplicity. Again, this is not merely a theoretical or spiritual point: it is also made obvious in the music itself. It does not constantly yearn, strive to be somewhere else while still stuck on a past chord. It does not have the intertwined, winding, gloriously painful forward movement of a Mahler symphony. It rather consists of consecutive statements, offered themselves as developments of thematic kernels, but openly so, without unnecessary complications. To say that this is so because Bruckner was a church organist and his composition technique essentially that of an organ composer transcribing his ideas for orchestra (which is, simplification aside, absolutely correct), does not negate the spiritual point about his music. If anything, it supports it.

The effect of Bruckner's music is that you are never compelled, forced to go on with it; you are not sucked into a harmonic maelstrom from which there is no escape. You are carried along with the music. There is no driven, fatalistic run to an uncertain end. You always know where you are, and you will know that and, usually, when it will end. In a review of Günter Wand's performance of the 8th Symphony at the cathedral in Lübeck, a writer once said: "It took Wand 86 minutes to finish the symphony, because it took him 86 minutes to find God." Even a heathen like I am can appreciate a statement like that, and after hearing the performance, it is self-explanatory, saying legions about both the work and the performance. You can listen to any and all of Mahler's symphonies backwards and forwards, and you will find many things, but God, or even just resolution, is not one of them. Nor is it likely that many people get to the end of Parsifal and have a sudden epiphany of what "Redemption the Redeemer" might exactly mean.

None of this is to say that Bruckner is somehow better than Wagner or Mahler, musically or otherwise. (Though it is probably difficult not to be better than Wagner in any non-musical ways...) It is to say that Bruckner could not be more different from those two, despite superficial similarities. Nor am I trying to make Bruckner into the composer for the spiritually inclined. Spirituality is merely one of the explanations for what distinguished Bruckner's music from other music. It becomes a musical point entirely, much like when Charles Bukowski (of all people) had the wisdom to write: "The reason why it is so difficult to play Bach badly, is that he made so few spiritual mistakes." What sounds like evasive hogwash becomes abundantly clear when you hear a mediocre performance of the Goldberg Variations on the marimba, and it still makes sense. Reger, Busoni, Shostakovich (Preludes and Fugues), and Schoenberg all found inspiration in Bach. None succeeded in writing music that was similar in spirit without also being similar in technique, voice, or style. Of all the 19th- and 20th-century composers who took their cues from Bach, Bruckner is the most like him while having the most distinctive musical vernacular.

The symphonies might look grandiose. Yet not a note in them is self-serving, there is no hint of self-importance. They are an abdication of the ego and the earnest, plain, humble gift to a master Bruckner knew to be greater than himself. If his work didn't speak that language musically, I would not be interested in it. But since it does, I can only urge, "Here it is, Listener, take it."

(*) Bruckner didn't write much else: a lovable, massive if somewhat clunky quintet, three sublime Masses, a Te Deum of equal quality, some psalm settings, a few choral works, and surprisingly little organ music.

Recommended recordings of works mentioned:

Bruckner, Symphonies – Jochum (DG), Jochum (EMI), Wand (RCA)
Bruckner, Symphony No.3 – Celibidache (EMI), Tintner (Naxos)
Bruckner, Symphony No.4 – Wand (RCA)
Bruckner, Symphony No.5 – Celibidache (EMI), Sinopoli (DG), Wand (RCA)
Bruckner, Symphony No.6 – Celibidache (EMI), Klemperer (EMI)
Bruckner, Symphony No.7 – Karajan (DG), Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi)
Bruckner, Symphony No.8 – Wand (RCA), Wand (EMI/DHM, nla), Boulez (DG), Karajan (DG)
Bruckner, Symphony No.8, transcribed for Organ – Rogge (BIS)
Bruckner, Symphony No.9 – Wand (RCA)

Wagner, Parsifal – Knappertsbusch (Melodram, Philips), Barenboim (Teldec)

Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau – Schonwandt (Dacapo)
Zemlinksy, Choral Works – Conlon (EMI)

Rott, Symphony in E – Russell-Davies (cpo)

Dvořák, Symphonies – Kubelik (DG), Kertesz (Decca)

9.5.05

Left Bank Ligeti 

How often does one get the chance to hear György Ligeti's String Quartet No.1 "Metamorphoses - Nocturnes" twice in the course of a month?! (See the Pacifica Quartet review here) I regret not having known the Left Bank Concert Society's program beforehand - else I should have tried to get the legions of Ligeti-loving Ionarts readers to swamp the sadly half empty Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center.

There they would have been able to indulge in the tart fruits of Luciano Berio, Oliver Knussen, mentioned Györgi Ligeti and Béla Bartók's work. Sequenza III (1966) by Berio may be an odd modernist cacophony for solo voice to those who only hear it in recorded or broadcast form (fat chance any American radio station would broadcast that work these days...), but live it becomes a highly amusing show, a zoo of vocal and acting exhibitions. Suddenly the strangeness of it all makes sense on its own merit. Ms. Bryn-Julson (a fellow Cobber) hiccuped, laughed, talked, cooed, shrieked, sang, giggled and babbled her way into the audiences heart - all with the utmost charming vitality. Quattro canzoni populari (1947-1973) are comparatively 'tame' tonal songs, based on (or inspired by) folk music. They were beautiful melodies that, whether intentionally or not, seemed to gain in their folk-authenticity wherever Ms. Bryn-Julson's voice, for all its glory, was strained, vulnerable or unstable.

Oliver Knussen's Cantata op.15, for Oboe and String Trio (1975-1977) begins with long, elegiacal musical lines that exude grace - only to be superseded by a nervous mood where the instruments have their jitters. I generally try to be open minded to all modern music, even the most forbidding works, but Knussen made it especially easy for me. Even with its oboe-squeaks over strings, it was arguably 'pretty' ... at least when compared to similar works by Milton Babbitt. Left Bank artistic co-directors Evelyn Elsig and David Salness (cello and violin, respectively), violist Katherine Murdock and oboist Mark Hill (inflating his neck like an exploding frog - an ability of oboists that has fascinated me since childhood) gave their all in the 'cantata'.

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B.Bartók, Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Perahia, Solti
The Ligeti quartet surely could have used a bit of an introduction in the talk that preceded the concert rather than the speaker going on in fair detail about the Paul Sacher Foundation (important sponsors of modern music for over 50 years) and music that was not on the program. But then I might underestimate the select Left Bank Concert audience which has legitimately different needs than an unexpecting Free/Sackler Gallery crowd. The enthusiastic, rapturous applause after the quartet - even without introduction - certainly seemed to point in that direction. The players of the Left Bank Quartet (violinist Sally McLain replaced Mr. Hill) played it very well, if not quite quite the same intensity or accuracy as the Pacifica Quartet had.

Béla Bartók's Sontata for Two Pianos and Two Percussion from 1937 is a tremendous work that I don't think I have heard before. Messrs. McKay and Villanueva worked their timpani, gongs, snare-drums, and xylophones to great effect while facing them, Audrey Andrist and Colette Valentine played the heck out of the two grand pianos. The cumulative force of the Assai lento alone was enough to awe the audience. Describing its wonders would be too cumbersome and long-winded. It really ought to be heard... though I might approximate its impact by likening it to a blend of Shostakovich's 4th symphony (first movement) and Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps" four hand piano version. If that sounds at all intriguing, the sonata was written for you and you'd be lucky to hear it as committedly performed as by the artists at the Left Bank's last performance this season.

7.5.05

Kraggerud to the Rescue 

(published first at ionarts)

Grieg's Holberg Suite, Mozart's 5th violin concerto, and Beethoven's 1st symphony were the parts of a rather standard program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore this Thursday. (Only, of course, that the Beethoven is so standard, you hardly hear it in the concert halls anymore.) The BSO-member introduction speech before the Grieg was mercifully short this time... one improvement over the last concert. The pleasant, friendly, and always gorgeous anachronism of Grieg, his Suite Aus Holbergs Zeit had just been heard a few weeks before, then with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (read Ionarts review here)—and they did better, even without a conductor. This time, there were no glaring mistakes or flaws (apart from on exception to be mentioned), either, but the violas and celli were muddled and the BSO strings were not tuned well.

Kwamé Ryan—conductor of several world premieres of operas by Eötvöo and Pintcher—led with highly visible enthusiasm and devotion, expressing every emotional nook and cranny of the work (there are many) with his body, eyes, hand—much to the amusement of (most of) the audience. Jonathan Carnan, the first violinist of the BSO who usually distinguishes himself through his chair-hopping antics, delivered the worst (out of tune and sloppy) violin solo I have heard in a professional setting.

Then came the young Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (a very unfortunate picture of whom had been used in the program). Ionarts has heard him before: in Brahms at the National Gallery of Art, where he and his collaborator Helge Kjekshus gave a very intelligent and pleasing performance (Ionarts review here).

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E. Grieg, Sonatas for Violin & Piano, Kjekshus / Kraggerud
In the infinitely better accoustic of Strathmore Hall, he had far more opportunity to show off his specific tone. Throughout the Mozart Kraggerud's playing was on the fast side, which is nothing new if you know his recordings of Grieg or Brahms on Naxos. His tone was on the thin side, but very clear, almost sharp (I did not hear "sweetness" in his or his violin's tone, as other attendees claimed), like a needle through leather. It reminded me of a smaller Nathan Milstein variant with silvery touches. His instrument, Ole Bull's old fiddle, only contributed to this effect. Beautiful, yet everything but warm, tending rather toward a boxy, hollow sound.

Kraggerud displayed moving and elegant playing in the Adagio, without giving up the fresh touch he brings to seemingly everything he plays. Hearing him in concert, one finds it no surprise that he will play a Carnegie concert with his compatriout Leif Ove Andsnes later this month. The band behind him, meanwhile, was fine, but not special. Little to no sparkle in the Mozart, but some heft. There was no blaming Maestro Ryan, though: Mozart is awfully difficult to do really well and the BSO probably not used to it after years of Termirkanov. Meanwhile, the heavy plodding in the background made for a vivid and exciting contrast with the vigorous and energetic Kraggerud up front. At times he even seemed to want to push the truncated BSO on a bit.

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Norwegian Violin Favorites, Kjekshus / Kraggerud
Johann Svenson's Romance (found on Kraggerud's Naxos disc of Norwegian favorites) was the Norwegian-flavored encore to celebrate 100 years of Norwegian independence. The audience loved this piece and the playing: both were beautiful and impressive in equal meassure.

Beethoven's first symphony is still very much classical, with touches of Mozart, but not quite in the same class as the second and that "Greek maiden," the fourth. The BSO played on autopilot, and Maestro Ryan, visibly loving every bit of the work, conducted the audience as much or more than the players, upon whom his passionate gestures seemed to be lost since they did not look up from their notes. It may have been a bit routine, but not so pedestrian as to be less than enjoyable.

UPDATE:
See also Joe Banno, From the BSO, a Sweet 'Holberg' Suite (Washington Post, May 7).

6.5.05

Mahler's 9th with MTT 

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G. Mahler, Sy.#9, Michael Tilson Thomas / SFSO
Following his release of the 2nd symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas’ Mahler cycle continues to take shape with this 9th on the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s own label. The predecessor did not disappoint and neither does this issue.
Just as the last time I reviewed a new MTT-Mahler release, I took the time to listen to as many other performances of Mahler’s last (for all practical purposes) symphony as I have in my collection. An acquaintance even lent me Ozawa’s Sony recording, available only in Japan. In addition to these ‘canned’ performances, I heard it with the NSO and again with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony orchestra. Too much of a good thing? Fortunately not. Every time hear the 9th, I find something new – and even after listening to it an estimated 35 times over the last three, four weeks, I’m far from being sick of it. The verdict for the new release, meanwhile, is strikingly similar as with the 2nd.
In short, we have here an excellent performance, impeccable playing; a great new installment in the MTT-SFS cycle if not necessarily an outright first choice. The latter point isn’t saying much, of course, because there is really no “clear first choice” in any Mahler symphony. Even where I have a strong favorite, others will swear by a different interpretation. Too much in Mahler depends on character and mood as well as listener preference. If polish is among those, MTT is already off to a good start. From the first movement to the last, it is also a very relaxed performance, well mannered and broad. Of the versions I compared, only Riccardo Chailly (Decca) could match the expansive nature. Of the ones I know, only Levine (Oehms) beats Tilson Tomas, thanks to a slow-motion finale. While I generally don’t believe in the usefulness of tables comparing timings (the essence of a performance is not revealed in objective-, but subjective time and through character) I’ll include one here anyway, for interest’s sake:
Abbado III25:5214:5612:2125:5679:05
Boulez29:1716:0312:3821:2579:23
Chailly30:3916:5514:0128:2489:49
Levine29:1316:5914:5132:2793:30
Sinopoli28:0915:1213:1625:5482:31
MTT30:2217:0413:5527:5088:22


MTT clearly takes his time and his broad first movement unfolds in carefully paced glory. The brass notes are tame and almost sound like the plucked double basses in the opening, a character this recording has in common with most its rivals, except Sinopoli (DG) where the Philharmonia’s aggressive brass sound like falling trees. Sinopoli, whose first movement I find more riveting than the competitors, also gives it a bit more forward momentum – easily as much, at any rate, as the fastest of the bunch, Abbado (DG). MTT’s first movement, indeed, the entire symphony, is close in spirit to Chailly, although subtler at times. With a magnificent second and third movement, you get all the polish of the San Francisco Symphony and a naturalness that has every musical element fall into place. As in the second symphony, the feel is elastic and lithe rather than driven.
Again, the true jewel of the performance is the finale. It is the quintessence of slow burn, something that Klemperer’s live performances have been said to exemplify. The feelings of lying on ones back in the Austrian mountainside–blissfully, while worlds pass by, moved and taken to higher, better spheres until the very last tone and beyond (best enjoyed with headphones)–that are conjured, make it one of the finest last movements I have sampled. This solitary affirmative musical statement all the movements of all of Mahler’s symphonies has completely uncharacteristic tones of Bruckner’s ninth and perhaps that explains the calm that exudes the finale.
Unhurried, MTT paints pictures where Boulez analyses. He is genteel where Sinopoli is raw, labors where Abbado cruises. Ozawa has as much or more intensity in the first two, three movements. I found Sinopoli particularly appealing in his ‘gloves-off’ mode, my idol Abbado curiously blasé in this live recording from Berlin. I never knew that subtleness was a desired quality to have in a Mahler symphony, but this recording makes that point and makes it well. With its superb sound in stereo, SACD stereo and SACD surround (an emphasis is on ‘ambience’ rather than ‘effect’ – no fanfares from behind, this time) its just the recording to have when you yearn for civilized Mahler.

4.5.05

It's so Cool to Be Norwegian 

(published first at ionarts)

Available at Amazon
Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Ground
Last Monday, the Tord Gustavsen Trio from Norway, the country between Ikea and Nokia that gave us "We Kill Whales for Fun" T-shirts,stopped by DC on their North American Tour in support of their new ECM record, The Ground. At the well-filled Blues Alley they played the calming, generally slow, and marvelously melodious jazz that is made up mostly, if not entirely, of Tord Gustavsen's compositions, which often sound like improvisations. Slow, passionate, and filled with yearning was their opening number, At Home, which connoted the lyrical passages of Keith Jarrett's improvisations on the Köln or Vienna Concert albums, coupled with hints of Jacques Loussier's Bach transmogrifications.

The entire set was dominated by works that imperceptibly picked up speed and steam until—seemingly out of nowhere—they reached an irresistible, if mellow, drive, a melodic and rhythmic "slow burn." Almost as imperceptibly as the song's propelling parts came, they went. Ditto for Sentiment, which is from their new release. Also in best Keith Jarrett fashion, Tord Gustavsen hums, sings, and winces along with the wound and unwound phrases that he and his Trio's members cull from the music. Twins was welded onto Reach Out and Touch it, the former with a bit more energy than the others, the former with a large solo piano part by Jarle Vespestad, again not unlike Keith Jarrett, and ending with the most subtle, charming drum solo I've heard in jazz so far. Well... it could have, should have ended there, and had it not been for the continuation with a beautiful bit with an array of resolved chords, I would have considered it a missed opportunity.

Available at Amazon
Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert
Curtains Aside and Still There made the Keith Jarrett affinity only more obvious. The way the Trio shifts keys or has long, searching passages followed by a series of resolutions makes the three Norwegians sound like the Keith Jarrett Trio, if the Keith Jarrett Trio actually sounded anything like Keith Jarrett. If you like Keith, then you will love the Tord Gustavsen Trio, which for all its similarities, is far too good to be considered a mere knockoff. Still, if May's Jazz Times, in their article "Quiet is the New Loud" is spot-on, stating that "Gustavsen chooses subtleness and beauty over contrast and bombast," I disagree (for by now obvious reasons) when they follow that with "and creates an utterly unique sound in the process." If there is any one thing their sound is not, it is unique. The point was proven when the intro to the third-to-last song of the second set took a several-minutes-long piano introduction that seemed lifted straight from the Köln Concert.

Meditative, ruminating, reminiscing are the qualities of the trio's sound, and the always elegant, felt, exquisitely subtle Mr. Vespestad on drums (looking like a smaller, lithe version of Bruce Willis) contributes perhaps even more to this than his colleague on bass, Harald Johnsen. Token of Tango and Graceful Touch came and went, the latter a "song of yearning," though that's good enough to describe them all. I was surprised that Tord Gustavsen was surprised that I heard Jarrett all over the place, but the humble musician, extraordinarily friendly just as his colleagues acknowledged him as a main influence, betraying a sense of flattery to be compared to Jarrett (who is far more popular in Europe than in the U.S.), rather than annoyance that I may have suggested lack of originality. I assume that if Gustavsen and Co. like Jarrett as much as I do, they would be flattered to sound like him, especially if that wasn't even what they tried to do.

This is one kind of jazz—well behaved, stylish (down to the impeccable suits the three young men wore), and beautiful—and it's not for everyone, I suspect. If your favorite record is Miles Davis, Live at the Newport, you won't be impressed. If you like intelligent and lyrical late-night jazz, make either of their records your next.

2.5.05

Shanghai Quartet and a Taste of China 

(published first at ionarts)

Two Wednesdays ago (April 20), the Shanghai Quartet and huqin virtuoso Wang Guowei stopped by the Freer/Sackler Gallery to present a concert of Chinese repertoire and Brahms. Second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang arranged and recomposed several Chinese songs and traditional melodies for string quartet, and the result is his piece China Song from 2002. Since he emphasized and introduced Western elements to these songs, they sound more like a 19th-century faux-chinois quartet by a hopelessly melodic French composer. The recognizable Chinese melodic progressions and the wailing tone of the Chinese fiddle are always present, but only as shapes swimming in a sea of Western classical harmony. That's hardly a criticism—I don't know Chinese music well enough and can't say how much of the original was left anyway—but actually a compliment. Maybe it was like Chinese food in America: inauthentic but palatable. Every piece had a different flavor, and they all had a certain orchestral character about them. The third song ("A Busker's Little Tune") had me think of a possible music school assignment: compose a short string quartet movement on this (the "Busker's") tune, and do it in the style of Bartók.

After these songs, the quartet (who recently starred in the soundtrack of Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda) had convinced Wang Guowei to play a few solo works ("since he's here already..."). Both, the variation on a song and Listening to the Pine, a folk song by a famous street musician from the 1940s, were beautifully played on the huqin, the Chinese fiddle, which looks like a Coke can on a stick with a string and a bow playing it. While the former piece was more calm and melodic, the latter used the entire dynamic range of the instrument and was rather animated.

The 1997 Fiddle Suite for Huqin and String Quartet by Chen Yi showcases three different types of huqin, the instrument the Chinese adopted from the central Asian tribes and subsequently made their own. The work is best described in Mr. Chen's own words, lifted straight from Susan Halpern's program notes:
The first movement showcases the original sweet sound of the erhu (the timbre is like the human voice). The second movmement is a realization of an eleventh-century poem by Su Shi, and the original Chinese characters of the poem are reprinted above the huqin melody in the score. It imitates the exaggerated reciting voice in Chinese operatic style, while the quartet plays mysterious textures to create the atmosphere, to express the parting sorrow in the poem. The third is influenced by a Beijing opera tune (the fiddle is screamingly high), while the strings sound like a percussion group. Its image came from the dancing ink on paper in Chinese calligraphy.
Needless to say, the suite was far more "Chinese" sounding than the China Song arrangements. The last movement's end, though, was as charged and fiery a finale as could be found in a DSCH symphony. Dedicated and polished playing only added to the splendor of the first half.

Brahms is a good way to measure the quality of a string quartet (the performers, not the work), since Brahms's quartets need to be performed impeccably and with plenty of gusto in order to convince. The A-Minor Quartet No. 2, op. 51, no. 2, is no exception. The complex polyphony of the first movement demands full concentration from the opening notes on. The many strands that Brahms spins into that Allegro non troppo are dazzling. To find direction amid all these impressions is difficult and if there is a common or thematic idea in it, I fail to find it. I still enjoy it, as I do the discernable, recurring melody that may serve as an anchor for the ears. The Andante moderato is dead serious, as though "String Quartet" and fun were two polar opposites. The shadow of Beethoven was looming too large, still... and Brahms reacted differently to it than, say, Schubert, whose generally sunny attitude in his late quartets was not even impeded by syphilis.

Even if the finale has good moments, the Shanghai Quartet's adequate performance was not enough for me to warm up to it. A little bit like those works go a long way and should I happen to have a craving, the ABQ's first recording on EMI provides everything I could wish for. The second movement of Ravel's quartet was pure contrast after the somber Brahms. Pure joy next to lyricism: excitement coupled with mellifluous melody and all packed into a couple minutes made it the perfect encore.

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