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30.11.05

To the Beat of a New, Similar Drum 

Jennifer HigdonPhiladelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon’s brand-new Percussion Concerto (it was premiered on November 25th in Philadelphia) rose slowly to life under the hands of soloist Colin Currie. Amplified new-agey marimba sounds wafted about until the orchestra ripped through the calm with tortured strength. With that raucous orchestral backup (Ms. Higdon says “meaty,” I say “thumping”… if not necessarily in a bad way), Mr. Currie moved from one percussion station to the next. From right to left he took his excess energy out on a vibraphone, marimba, a collection of wood blocks and cowbells, and a drum kit as you’d expect it in a rock concert. While he gets to use these toys up front, the hyperactive Philadelphia Orchestra’s percussion section under their Maestro Christoph Eschenbach, too, got in on the action. The rumbling, rambling finale of this one-movement concerto ended with a marimba/piano-driven race preceding Colin Currie’s free-wheeling cadenza on the drum kit. Perhaps it is unfair to judge the work upon one hearing alone… but that alone says something about the quality of the work. I have heard music of Higdon’s - a friend of Marin Alsop's - on recordings that I liked much better – although the very enthusiastic audience reaction in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall suggested great (initial) popularity. That the composer was present in the audience may have helped a little for such a reception, too.

Following the concerto – it seemed half an hour long, but I take it that it was only a twenty-minute work – was one of the trustiest workhorses in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Eroica. Like two lashed slaps in the face of the audience Eschenbach placed the two pillars at the third symphony’s entrance that lead unto the path of the Romantic symphony as we know it. It was one of the few moments that I thought stood out as particularly novel or exciting in a performance that was more pleasing than anything else. Like his predecessor (one of the greatest and least noticeable maestros) Wolfgang Sawallisch, I don’t suppose that the former conductor of the Houston SO approaches Beethoven with a particular agenda. That is neither good nor bad in itself. Trying to make Beethoven sound new or ‘different’ can be great (Zinman, Gardiner, Harnoncourt, and in a very different and old-fashioned way, Barenboim) – but can just as easily become a painful miscalculation.

Even if we shall never hear the true radicalism of the Eroica, simply because we cannot unmake the cumulative experiences of the last 200 years, the symphony has so much to offer from its music alone (simple as the underlying motives are) that just playing it extraordinarily well will make for a great experience. Fortunately and expectedly, the Philadelphia Orchestra did play well and the mix between aggressively energetic and old-fashioned European with full forces and a gravitas-laden Marcia funebre that one could actually have walked along the coffin without stumbling was just fine, too. The arrangement saw antiphonal violins and placed the cellos center-left, but how much that seating yielded in better differentiation in the Concert Hall was difficult to tell. The brass generally disappointed, either with timid sound in soft passages or lack of suave in the more forceful moments, but the string section played with energy and dedication that was visibly and audibly admirable. The program was presented by WPAS. I don't need to mention anything about speeches today - another, more prominent critic has already done that for me.

Letter to the Editor 

Financial Times


Angela Merkel is set for a true test of her determination.

By GEORGE PIELER
368 words
29 November 2005
Financial Times
Asia Ed1
Page 14
English
(c) 2005 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved


From Mr George A. Pieler and
Mr Jens F. Laurson.

Sir, Your editorial comment "A determined lady" (November 26) concludes that Angela Merkel, the new German chancellor, "knows that if Germany is to have world influence, it must first put its own economic house in order. That is what the rest of Europe needs, too". Surprisingly, you neglect any consideration of what "putting the house in order" demands in practical terms.
Ms Merkel's grand coalition seems fatally hampered not by the demands of house-cleaning but by lowest-common-denominator coalition economic plans.
Those plans stipulate large tax increases and (as of this writing) minimal regulatory relief, which will neither bring the German deficit in compliance with European Union rules nor enable Germany to finance its overweening welfare state. Without a coherent strategy of bringing Germany to a higher growth path, it surely will be unable to manage its own fiscal affairs, much less lead "the rest of Europe".
While the Merkel-led coalition may be fatally hampered by its very political breadth, the economic answers for both Germany and Europe are not hard to find: reduce tax rates now, including those on corporations; ensure any increases in the value added tax are offset elsewhere to avoid fiscal drag; and significantly reduce the "wedge" cost of hiring additional workers by simplifying and reforming labour regulations and returning a degree of fluidity to the workplace.
The business community in Germany knows this quite well, and its concerns over the direction set by Ms Merkel are reflected in the 1-point decline in business confidence to 97.8 in November, as measured by Munich's Ifo Institute.
Whether German business and political leaders can influence the grand coalition in a positive direction, or only wait out a failed policy platform in hope of a better (and early) election result, will be the true test of how determined a lady

Chancellor Merkel is.
George A. Pieler,
Senior Fellow,
Institute for Policy Innovation,
Falls Church, VA 22046, US

Jens F. Laurson,
Editor-in-Chief,
International Affairs Forum,
Arlington, VA 22205, US

Lutefisk & Jesus 



Light Norwegian Christmas Tree at Union Station: Check

Get tickets for Lage Lund at Blues Alley: Check

Make note not to miss the accordion (!) recital at the NGA: Check

Make good use of the open bar at the Norwegian Embassy’s Christmas reception: Che-hi-ck

26.11.05

Baiba Skride Kindles a Fire at Strathmore 

Baiba SkrideTo the unfamiliar sounds of Stephen Albert’s Tapioca orchestral work, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened their Turkey digestion concert (Friday after Thanksgiving) under the baton of Hans Graf at Strathmore. With bells and whistles, this charming and amusingly cacophonous appetizer of a fanfare – no longer than three minutes – is not a dyslexic's attempt at mimicking Sibelius but a 14-year-old Zinman concocted running joke involving the BSO and Tapioca Pudding à la Rhubarb Pie, courtesy of Garrison Keillor. It depicts, in part, the dubious pleasure that a lactose-intolerant person (Albert) would derive from that dessert.

In theory it might be lamented that even in the serious classical arts business, much emphasis is placed on how a performer looks. It may not yet be a requirement to be a runway model in order to strut onto the stage of major concert halls, but it helps and is increasingly important. How many female violinists do you know that are – how to put this diplomatically – less convincing visually than they are acoustically? Nor are male artists safe from this trend. (Even Ionarts has discussed a performer’s hair recently.)

In practice, however, we don’t really mind. Especialy not if as delectable a Latvian as Baiba Skride comes on stage in a fiery red dress that tantalizingly threatened to fall off. Our shallow side is addressed and our shallow side duly responds. But good looks didn’t win this 24-year-old the Queen Elizabeth competition in 2001 and surely were not the deciding factor for the Nippon Music Foundation to loan her the Wilhemj Stradivarius. With that instrument in hand, Mlle. Skride produced a very rich and resonant, burnished and blooming sound (like an ideal viola) in Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. In the first movement her playing that was not always a model of cleanliness but throughout her tone was supported by an enviably electric, tight vibrato.

available at Amazon
Mozart/Haydn, Violin Concertos, B.Skride / Haenchen CPEB Orch.
A few weeks ago I found a Sony release with the then still unknown-to-me violinist on my desk. The combination of another Mozart concerto and pretty girl draped across the cover (in the Janine Janson style) didn’t seem very promising (speaking of which – a review of Anne Sofie Mutter’s new disc will be forthcoming shortly) but proved to be highly agreeable. The Mozart is very entertaining and interestingly coupled with a Michael Haydn concerto. I’ve since listened to the recording many more times with unabated joy, which created some anticipation for her live appearance. She was kind enough not to let us down.

Hans Graf milked the BSO’s brass in the Andante to broad and full effect, reveling in the noise the players made in the rich sounding and no longer booming Strathmore Hall. Baiba Skride elicited strong approval in the preceding movements already (the audience duly applauding every single one of the five movements) but showed that the lyrical section suited her just as well if not better. A nearby colleague wiggled and nodded along through the concluding Rondo – a good sign, certainly, and visually affirming my perception of the light-footed and agile way she had with this anti-Brahms virtuoso piece. Part of the delight came from a performance that audibly placed joy over note-perfection (not that there were any glaring mistakes in it, anyway), which made it so infectious. It was a performance like a broad smile – enthusiastically received.

After intermission, however, the concert experience was seriously derailed by a speech of the orchestra librarian, Ms. Plaine. Nomen est omen. Sorry that I did not care that there is a copy and fax machine (and some workspace!) in the BSO music library. Or that I think that a good orchestra librarian’s job is to work efficiently in the background, not give murderously boring and inarticulate speeches. Bonding with the audience had better be left to the musicians, Maestro Graf, and Tchaikovsky’s 1st Symphony – the slight Winter Dreams-subtitled work of a then 26-year-old composer. The “sin of [his] sweet youth” (Tchaikovsky about the first symphony) and meticulously revised work heavily foreshadows the Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker in the first movement, and while it is a far cry from the last three symphonies of his, it is charming in its own right, nothing too heavy yet impeccably Russian and Romantic. Hans Graf, Kapellmeister with a Romantic touch, reigned over an amiable at first, then excellent, performance (the finale, a sort-of five-minute “variation on how to end a Romantic symphony,” was brought to its elongated climax beautifully) that far more eloquently made the point that audiences ought to turn out to hear the BSO’s concerts at Strathmore. Repeat performances will take place in Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall tonight at 8PM and tomorrow, Sunday, at 3PM.

25.11.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 49 ) 

available at Amazon
S. Rachmaninov, Préludes, B.Berezovsky
Have Rachmaninov’s solo piano work ever ‘escaped’ you? Have you ever been slightly annoyed or uninvolved by the sonatas or even the préludes? There is no shame in admitting immunity to these works’ charm – Charles, for one, has done so in public, at least with regards to the sonatas. Add me to the list, too. Strike me right off that list, though, where the préludes are concerned, because I’ve finally come to terms with them thanks to a new recording that may do the trick for the similarly afflicted, too. What’s good for the uninitiated is even more ear-opening for converted: Rachmaninov-lovers should put this disc very high on their Christmas wish-list. It is a new recording by Boris Berezovsky; not the one on Warner Classics (those are the op.10 études of Chopin coupled with their corresponding Godowsky transcriptions, although that’s a really fun disc, too) but on the smaller and exciting label MIRARE. That label’s presentations so far have been beautiful on the in- and outside… and their Scarlatti discs with Pierre Hantaï (vol.1 and 2) are very high on my own holiday want-list.

Berezovsky plays the ten préludes op.23, the thirteen préludes op.32 and the préludes en ut dièse mineur op.3, no.2 on this almost 80 minute long disc. The latter are roughly contemporary to the Debussy préludes while the earliest (and most famous), the c-sharp minor, is the second from a set of five short piano pieces written in 1891. Except the 1891 F-major and 1917 d-minor prélude (generally know as the Andante ma non troppo), all of Rachmaninov’s préludes are included here. Completists are pointed in the direction of Idil Biret’s recording of those two works, appropriately coupled with the Prélude-based Variations on a Theme of Chopin – Naxos 8.554426). I don’t know exactly what it is that makes Berezovsky communicate these works like I have never heard before, not with Ashkenazy, Alexeev or Shelley… but he does and I delight in the immediacy of his playing, the enthusiasm he brings to and from the préludes, the way he involves me as a listener. And Berezovsky only gets better as he gets along in these works. At least as far as I and my troubled relationship to Rachmanionv’s solo piano work are concerned, this is as good as it gets.

Mirare 004

24.11.05

Dip Your Ears... ( 48 ) 

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Concertos italiens, A. Tharaud / BPh
I've played Alexandre Tharaud's latest recording almost non-stop for the last few months, and it has consistently given me utter enjoyment and many a relieved smile since. In fact, I've been so enchanted by it, I forgot to write about it. Now that (almost) everyone agrees that it's one of the finest recital discs in a long time, I'll get to chime in by agreeing enthusiastically. This is indeed the finest Bach recital on the piano on record - period. Profoundly moving with immaculate musicality and technique to match, this disc makes me decry the fact that Ionarts missed his Washington, D.C., recital (a WPAS presentation at the Terrace Theater). Surrounding the centerpiece Italian Concerto with other transcriptions by Bach is a good idea and lets us hear some less familiar works that all bear Bach's stamp quite audibly. Bookmark this for one of Ionarts' Best Recordings in 2005.

23.11.05

Merkel: Outfoxed or Leading the Pack? 

First published at Tech Central Station. Also appeared on the International Affairs Forum, Townhall.com and the Institute for Policy Innovation's website.



By George A. Pieler and Jens F. Laurson
Published 11/18/2005


On her way to becoming Germany's first female chancellor, Angela Merkel has signed off on a policy platform that seems designed for failure: multiple tax hikes on a sluggish economy, modest restraints on state spending and virtually no initiatives to spur growth other than state-directed "innovation subsidies". Has Merkel traded away the very essence of her campaign pitch, or does she have a plan to outfox her critics and opponents (at least those among her ostensible allies)?

There is no doubt that creation of Germany's "grand coalition" (CDU/CSU and SPD), a result of Merkel's poor showing in the election, forestalled any true growth strategy, including tax rate cuts, restraint on social welfare spending, and market-freeing regulatory relief, particularly regarding labor. Yet even with modest expectations from the public, the platform unveiled by the coalition on November 11 is dismal indeed: a 3-point hike in the VAT rate to 19 percent (Merkel herself only proposed 18 percent), a new 3 percent wealth tax penalty on so-called upper income earners, cuts in tax breaks for homeowners and commuters, and delaying business tax cuts until 2008 (last spring outgoing SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder proposed cutting the top business rate from 25 percent to 19 percent).

Germany, with unemployment approaching 12 percent and economic growth projected at 1 percent or less, is not wont to prosper with this tax-driven fiscal austerity. True, the coalition platform does envision some restraints on social spending down the road, including a proposed jump in the retirement age to 67 years (to be implemented only by the year 2035) and somewhat less generous pension and retirement benefits. In addition a portion of increased VAT revenues will be aimed at offsetting cuts in unemployment insurance costs for German businesses, in an effort to promote job creation by socializing more broadly the cost of those benefits.

Yet socializing costs doesn't reduce them, and without more serious constraints on state spending (including the much vaunted "social compact" panoply of welfare benefits) it is difficult to see how the grand coalition can reach its grand goal of slashing Germany's budge deficit to bring it in line with the European Union's rule limiting deficits to 3 percent of GDP. True, the coalition puts most of the pain off until 2007, hoping that a year of sheer terror will induce Germans to spend and invest in 2006 like it was their last chance. Yet absent a serious growth agenda it is both naïve and futile to assume that increasing the VAT rate will actually bring in more revenue. If the coalition tax hikes slow growth further, as many economists predict, consumers will buy less and all bets are off on revenue projections for the VAT (and the new "wealth tax" for that matter).

How did Germany get in this fiscal box? Well, Merkel and her coalition partners cite the EU mandate to cut the budget deficit as a critical consideration, and the EU is ever committed to the high-tax option as the only way to balance income and outgo. Yet EU rules, as in much of Europe these days, provide a convenient excuse for politicians with no place to go to hide behind the EU's rhetoric. Avoiding accountability to German voters for controversial austerity measures may seem like a lowest-common-denominator recipe for political survival to this coalition.

But surely greater accountability to voters is just what the German government needs. In the election campaign Merkel and Schröder both were seen as advocating a certain degree of austerity, but Merkel promised more of it, allowing Schröder to call her "heartless" and bringing her to the brink of defeat. Even German voters, wedded as they are to the social welfare state, might have responded to the notion that their beloved benefits could be protected only by moving the nation to a higher-growth path: a goal which demands serious tax and regulatory relief. But Merkel never got to make that case, or she would be in a stronger position now.

Ironically, even as Germany embraces EU calls for fiscal austerity, in Washington IMF Managing Director Rodrigo Rato called for the US to raise taxes to reduce its budget deficit, while discounting the option of spending restraint (indeed the IMF is saying the same thing to Japan, but then this is what it usually says). If Europe, the US, and Asia raise taxes at the same time, in tandem with higher energy costs and US monetary tightening, deficit finance will remain unavoidable for some time, and the risk of global recession cannot be ruled out.

Is there a silver lining anywhere? Perhaps. The Coalition under Merkel still proposes a few more labor reforms than the SPD wanted, including a significant delay in an employee's initial eligibility for unemployment benefits. Even the adjustment of the retirement age - pathetically timid as the proposition may seem - would be an important step in the right direction. The more nuanced foreign policy that we can expect from the new government will help if it means that Germany takes less advice from France in matters of the economy, and opens itself more to suggestions from the UK, the United States and the new members of the EU to the east, including lower tax rates that at least will be competitive with nations moving towards the flat tax..

Under the circumstances, it will be hard for Merkel to emerge as a champion of economic freedom from the certain economic failure that the coalition platform will ensure. Her political pragmatism in forming a government at any cost - since there was no viable alternative to the SPD/CDU mismatch - has made Angela Merkel the chancellor but seems to have stripped her of all the reasons that made her deserve to become the chancellor. It is highly unlikely that the opportunity to move German economic policies into the 21st century will be seized by this government.

This is unfortunate, as Germany has a unique opportunity to bridge the divide between the traditional continental European consensus and Europe's more progressive upstarts to the east. Merkel is going to have a difficult time distancing herself from the failure of coalition economic policies, and seizing the mantle of progressive economics - but if she does not someone else will. If Germany is not to give up on itself, its aging and underemployed population, and indeed Europe as a whole, early elections will have to put an end to a coalition that has failed, before it even started.



George A. Pieler is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation and former Tax Counsel to the Senate Finance Committee. Jens F. Laurson is Editor of the International Affairs Forum.


22.11.05

Twenty-Fingered Bruckner 

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner / G. Mahler, Symphony No.3 transcr. Piano Duo, Trenkner/Speidel
Bruckner’s 3rd symphony is one of the less often recorded and performed of the Austrian master’s works. It is guilty of establishing Bruckner as a Wagnerite (which he certainly was – but his music is not nearly as Wagnerian as friends and detractors alike wanted to make it out to be) as it was pathetically humbly dedicated to Wagner (who chose this one for a dedication to himself rather than the admittedly less glorious 2nd, but then never so much as moved a finger to help its performance or even Bruckner’s acceptance as a composer). It exists in an abstruse amount of versions due to several revisions and re-writings. In the original 1872-73 version, the Wagnerian elements are strongest – whether for better or worse depends mostly on ones’ taste. It got ‘improvements’ in 1874, 1876 (when he also wrote a new adagio for it), in 1877, and finally, in 1888-89. What we have here is the least performed, the 1877 version. Since that alone is not novel enough, in our age of blooming Bruckner recordings, this release adds another twist. A perverse one, you might think. It is the arrangement for piano duo of that symphony. And, to make things a little more interesting, that arrangement (three quarters of it, at any rate) is by none less than Gustav Mahler. In a piece of unbeatable music-geek trivia, this symphony adaptation constitutes Gustav Mahler’s first published work. Even if you have no idea how this thing might sound, you already have the ideal gift for both, the obsessive Brucknerian and the obsessive Mahlerian. For those who are both (despite the differences between the composers’ styles, that is an common occurrence) you have secured your spot in that friend’s stocking-stuffer pantheon for all time.

How does it sound, though? Well… as long as you know and think of it to be a perversion, it’s actually quite good. Unlike Bruckner on the Organ, the result is not the stunning resemblance that Lionel Rogg achieves with his transcription of Bruckner’s 8th but instead a homespun mimicry that starts out as slightly New-Age Bruckner and then goes in its very own directions from there. To the non-purists, though, it might be downright exciting. Obviously it’s a disc for someone who already has too much of most things – but it is not nearly as desperate a novelty as many other CDs. If you have heard the piano-duo transcriptions of Mahler’s symphonies you can go from there and imagine the result improved by a wide margin. Two pianos are not able to conjure Echt-Bruckner – but they come a lot closer to his symphony than they do to any of Mahler’s.

The performer, Evelinde Trenkner (here with Sontraud Speidel) has made it her specialty to perform such arrangements – apart from aforementioned Mahler (with Mrs. Zenker – MDG 330 0837) I’ve also gotten a kick out of her performance of the Reger transcription of the Bach Orchestral Suites and Passacaglia (with Mrs. Speidel again – MDG 330 1006). Ultimately these works are a lot more fun to play than listen to – but short of having the requisite skills and a similarly inclined and skilled accomplice, these might put a smile and more on your face. I, for one, have listened to it well over a dozen times in the last few weeks and show no sign of tiring from it, yet.


MDG 330 0591


21.11.05

A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára 

Ravel's Masterpiece?Relaxing, pleasant, comfortable: I hate it when classical music is said to be (just) these things, because it is of course so much more. Running the entire emotional gamut from heavenly delight to horror and despair. That is not to say that a piece of classical music cannot or should not be relaxing, pleasant, comfortable… and Ravel’s suite from Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) was exactly that when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performed it this Saturday at Strathmore under Kwamé Ryan’s baton in his return to the BSO.

The natural simplicity and gentle beauty of the five episodes that Ravel orchestrated from his piano-for-four-children’s-hands original trumped all other moods presented in it – but that victory of form over content was actually very welcome. The BSO played well –very well in some passages – and even concertmaster Jonathan Carney seemed soothed by the music; his solo was executed with great skill.

The real thrill of the program was of a different emotional nature, giving me just the gloom and despondency that I so like to hold against those who think about classical music in the “Mozart for Meditation” and “Debussy for Daydreaming” way. It was Bela Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle that was responsible for the shift to darker hues and the BSO’s performance – not the least thanks to Mr. Ryan – did this gem a great service with a terrific performance. Glittering and gleaming, romantic and modern, threatening and stabbing, this is great stuff that benefits much from the live experience. A one act opera about Mr. Bluebeard, his new hematophobic wife, her need to see all the seven doors in his castle opened and their therefore thwarted love contains miraculously beautiful music. Touches of Wagner before the 7th door is opened, glorious and sweeping sounds with plenty of brass when the fifth door is opened; music so descriptive and gripping that it puts any film score to shame.

Sung in Hungarian, the soloists Anita Krause and Peter Fried were outstanding – singing well and enlivening the story with their effective minimal and evocative acting through their faces and small gestures. Maestro Ryan, a Peter Eotvos student (and conductor of the premieres of Eotvos’ operas) should know how to do this score proud and he did indeed bring the orchestra, the opera’s main character, to life in ways nothing short of magnificent. Heavily laden with symbolism, some in the audience may have found the tale and its grisly end amusing in its projected English translation of the Balázs libretto (based, like Mother Goose, on a Charles Perrault tale). They were forgiven to mistake some dialogue (“‘tis my torture chamber, Judith” –- “Fearsome is thy torture chamber, Bluebeard…”) for a special council Fitzgerald extracted transcript of a conversation between a former New York Times journalist and a certain Vice President – but it was assuredly all part of Bartók’s work.

18.11.05

In Mozart-Heaven Two Wings for Uchida 

Mitsuko UchidaIn the first of four star powered piano recitals that the Washington Performing Arts Society offers this season, Mitsuko Uchida made a start that was either promising for things to come or set us up for consequent disappointment when her colleagues – Murray Perahia, March 29th, Maurizio Pollini, May 17th and Alfred Brendel, Frebruary 7th – hit town. (What a line-up, by the way. Only Martha Argerich, who does not give recitals any longer, could add to that foursome, while Lang Lang, who is coming on April 13th, can’t detract from it.) A ringing, hard ‘C’ with plenty of air around it reverberated through the Strathmore hall as Mitsuko Uchida took to the Fantasia in c-minor K.475 performed in conjunction with the c-minor Sonata K.457 in her all-Mozart program.

That ‘C’ and the similarly played anchoring notes that establish its key gave the fantasy’s first bars a brooding, threatening quality that made the shift into the light mood of the Adagio appear as though the music entered a different room; if suddenly sunlight illuminated the quaver-populated landscape on an overcast day. It made for a smooth yet sudden shift along the emotional axis. There is beauty in the music, of course, but it is Mitsuko Uchida’s playing that elevates a Mozart recital to one of the finest events one could think of. I don’t know of many other artist that could make such a program not only palatable but indeed most desirable to me.

Uchida’s playing, the notes she touches, how she touches them, the notes she doesn’t play – all that has an inevitability about it. A perfect mix between precision and warmth that makes her Mozart so engrossing, so generous to the ear. To me, her playing emerges between the no-nonsense De Larrocha-Mozar (who keeps everything together like few others) and the romantic Schiff-approach (who milks these works seductively if, perhaps, a bit beyond their natural yield.) When Uchida plays Mozart, there is no argument about approach, no concern about ‘style’ in the listeners’ mind. He is directly situated in the music. Extra-musical considerations don’t come up, so well does she hide ego and ‘interpretation’ behind the music. She may have very strong ideas about Mozart-playing (or, for that matter, pretty much anything) – but the result is always pure music, not in any way audibly wilful. Her playing, especially in the great Viennese composers Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, elicits the critic’s helpless description of “utterly musical” which is usually a sign of being at a loss for words when confronted with an ‘innate rightness’ of the musician and his product.


available at Amazon
W.G. Mozart, Piano Sonatas et al., M.Uchida
Concentrating on the music would have been easier yet, had the Strathmore audience not been oddly active. No one could quite sit still; somebody was always sneezing, wheezing, wiggling in a gnarling chair, coughing, dropping assorted accessories and programs… which caused a floor of noise from which the music had to emerge. Perhaps the Adagio K.540 failed to captivate most listeners? The work, a single movement created by the 32 year old Mozart is, as the foremost Mozart-scholar Alfred Einstein puts it, “one of the most perfect, most deeply felt, and most despairing of all his works.” Some of that greatness was lost in the process of recreation – although I’d hesitate to assign blame for that to Mlle. Uchida.

The opening Allegro of the F-major sonata K.533/494 after intermission was a little busy but if its fugal parts did not come to the fore as one might have liked, the Andante appeased. Thanks to an abundance of complete (and affordable) Mozart sonata cycles, the sonata is probably not as unknown as the omnipresent program-notes writer Eric Bromberger claims… even if it does not pop up in many recitals. The harmonic curiosities of the sonata that he describes, too, are more a score-reader’s prerogative to marvel at than the casual listener’s who will – occasional dissonance and chromatic ambiguity as may tantalize the musicologist – have heard plenty of perceptibly Mozartian writing instead. The Andante could have benefited from a tauter approach while the Rondo: Allegretto was all that one could hope for, again.

Other Reviews:

Andrew Lindeman-Malone, From Pianist Uchida, Daring, Intense Mozart (Washington Post, November 17)
The Sonata in D-major K.576 was the kind of experience that induces the as-if-pained face of pure delight when the aesthetic encounter is just impossible to otherwise express. The carefully rolled out notes of the exquisitely balanced performance could have carried one featherlike through all three movements, especially the supreme Andante. If it didn’t, a few asthmatics were to blame, not the artist. Wonderful, too, how Mitsuko Uchida’s left hand plucked notes out of her own Hamburg Steinway in a concluding Allegretto that was nearly perfect.
With admirable applause-tenacity the ecstatic audience extracted an encore out of the lithe and delicate performer – the slow movement of sonata K.570 – which was a dream that no one would have minded, had it lasted much longer.


Mitsuko Uchida on record:
available at Amazonavailable at Amazonavailable at Amazon

Uchida is known foremost as a Mozartian – and that is hardly unfair, given the status of her concerto and sonata cycles both live and as recorded. The former, with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra is top of the line as far as I am concerned – although competition from Perahia’s Sony cycle is strong and much value to be had from the Brendel cycle that competes with Uchida on the Philips label. There are individual recordings that may supercede any particular recording – but as a whole, I find none more consistently satisfying.

Her Mozart sonata cycle has been discussed here before – some are its equals, none are better. Her Schubert has its detractors… albeit not many. I take her cycle of the sonatas even over Kempff’s – in part because of the superior sound quality that Philips gives their artist. Her interpretation of the 3 Klavierstücke (Thomas Larcher’s excepted) is sans pareil. The only substantial Schubert piece missing from her 8-CD set is the C-major Fantasie (“Wanderer”) – but for that we have the Pollini recording (DG Originals), anyway. Her Beethoven cycle has been discussed recently – it continues to be a joy… unobtrusive and delightful… a ‘safer’ choice than Pollini/Abbado (DG, oop) and more traditional contender next to the other recent recording – the superb Aimard/Harnoncourt (Teldec).

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But besides these three, Uchida really excels in other areas. Never have the Études of Debussy’s been played more ravishingly. Her Schoenberg concerto under the baton of Pierre Boulez trounces all others (most notably the excellent Glenn Gould on CBS/Sony) with ease – and is indeed so good, so understanding, that she might ease Schoenberg’s otherwise fairly forbidding work into less predisposed ears. About her recent forays into the Mozart Violin Sonata world I have written about at every opportunity and I won't miss this one, either: It's a marvel - it needs your ears. Die schöne Müllerin with Ian Bostridge, too, is a wonderful recording - far better, for that matter, than Mr. Bostridge's Winterreise. Since that includes about all the recordings I know of her, she seems to be one of those rare phenomena where every recording is an event and success (like Krystian Zimerman or, as of late, Nicolaus Harnoncourt and Rene Jacobs) – which, having heard her, is not hard to believe.

15.11.05

Hilary Hahn and Natalie Zhu Recital at Kennedy Center 

Hilary HahnThis year casual audiences delight in – and compulsive concert-goers fear – Mozart, who was born a celebrateable 250 years ago. Not to buck the trend, Hilary Hahn has recorded some of his sonatas with her friend and colleague Natalie Zhu, as reviewed on Ionarts. Ms. Hahn’s recital at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall coinciding with that October release, however, was far, far more than just a Mozart-stuffed plug for that recording. Ysaÿe, Enescu, Milstein, and Beethoven (and, yes, one obligatory Mozart sonata) were enough to excite on paper alone.

First off was Ysaÿe’s first of six sonatas for unaccompanied violin (op. 27). For my money, those six sonatas are the best thing written for solo violin since Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas – not by chance, perhaps, given that Ysaÿe took generous inspiration from the latter, particularly in the G minor sonata that Ms. Hahn played with the consummate skill we can expect from her. The Baltimore native and her lean, excellent French violin produce a filigrane, sometimes ghostly, clean tone slightly on the dry side that emanates cool beauty. A press release for the event lauded her “heartfelt lyricism” that “drives to the heart and soul of the music.” I can’t exactly agree; if Ms. Hahn aims for the heart, she misses by just over a foot, hitting the center of the brain as she does. Where the same bio is right on is in characterizing her playing as “free of musical excess” and noting her “intellectual and emotional maturity.” The mentioned qualities of her playing and a certain noble musicality are only underscored by the tone of her instrument – the combination of which leaves some critics of her bemoaning absences of sweetness. It depends on the musical territory for me what kind of a sound I want – but neither in Ysaÿe nor Enescu am I looking for a particularly sweet tone. Rather than neutralize her style with an Amati, Hilary Hahn is better off (if only in my opinion) being her distinct, excellent self, even if that means little Kreisler from her any time soon. (If I want violin playing from the candy factory, I need only go so far as Perlman or Bell, anyway.) It’s no coincidence that the Ysaÿe recording I enjoy the most is Thomas Zehetmair’s recent one on ECM. He is certainly more an intellectual than Romantic player, and yet he still gives each sonata the requisite distinct character of the violinist the sonatas were written for: Szigeti, Thibaud, Enescu, Kreisler, Mathieu Crickboom, and Manuel Quiroga, respectively.

Hilary Hahn came back for the third Enescu sonata, in A minor, op. 25, with Natalie Zhu. Composed just two years after Ysaÿe wrote all his sonatas in a single 1924 night, the Enescu work is of the same 20th-century musical language that Bartók, Shostakovich, Britten, and Bloch employed: neither much (if at all) influenced by Schoenberg (then still only in his early stages) nor backward-looking like the likes of Dohnányi, Paderewski, Stojowski, or Moszowski. Like Ysaÿe, Enescu was one of the great violinists of his generation (exactly one generation after Ysaÿe), and like Bartók in Hungary, Enescu made the most of his Romania’s native soundscape. The third sonata’s spontaneity belies the meticulous (to say the least) instructions both pianist and violinist get on their way for performances. Natalie Zhu let the piano ring beautifully in a work that asks for much more than an ‘accompanist’. Hilary Hahn ripped wry pizzicatos off her fiddle that it was a joy. The blind understanding between violinist and Ms. Zhu, aided by flawless performance, energy, and fun led to many a good thing… thundering applause afterwards being just the least of it.

Continuing with violinist’s violin compositions, a rarity was offered: Paganiniana, where one of the finest violinists of the 20th century – Nathan Milstein – had his way with the 24th Caprice of Paganini, the greatest violinist of the 19th century. Hilary Hahn hardly has to prove her technical ability, which is on par with the best of today’s violinists and well above some of the very popular ones. A little more effort than that needle-through-leather Milstein-sound was audible, but the clarity and precision with which her little spider of a left hand navigated the fingerboard was stunning enough.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, Hilary Hahn at the Kennedy Center (DCist, November 14)

Tim Page, Hilary Hahn, Channeling Violinists of Yore (Washington Post, November 15)
Mozart at his worst is pretty – and while there are discernable differences between the best of his chamber output (quintets, trios) and the least genial (early quartets, a few of the violin sonatas), anyone ready to snub an exquisitely played G major Sonata for Piano and Violin (K. 301) would be a fool. I reserve being a fool for another cause and report only happy delight from Hahn/Zhu’s go at the 22-year-old composer, who just about found his mature style at that age. (Despite consistent rumors to the contrary Mozart was, in composer terms, if not a late bloomer then at least maturing at a very ordinary pace.) Tellingly, the six sonatas, of which K. 301 is one, are called Sonatas for Harpsichord or Fortepiano with Accompaniment of Violin. If one makes the test of this title’s ‘truth’ the question if the violin could be removed without the sonata taking damage – as Eric Bromberger in his very informative program notes does - then it is of course easy to “show[ ] how false that idea is.” But that’s hardly the point. Much rather the title acknowledges the central importance of the pianist in these works (and for that matter in the later violin sonatas, also), without whom there would be little impression made. Maybe it is a coincidence that the most consistently beautiful recording, one that has done the most to advocate the value of these sonatas to me, bills the pianist first (Uchida / Steinberg on Philips) – but I chose to believe it isn’t. About the present performances little needs to be said other than that it was utterly musical, bold enough, and (unsurprisingly) more pleasing yet than listening to their record of it.

Beethoven, like Mozart, has his share of clichés to deal with. The “mad composer,” “fate knocking on the door,” and other anecdotes that range between cute extramusical flavor and pure rubbish. One thing Beethoven rarely got accused of, though, is having been a child protégé. “What if he had died at 30” is a popular question (among music geeks, at least) – and the answer is a preliminary question: “Would the six op.18 string quartets and the second symphony have merited great-composer status?” The answer to that, in turn, should you care for me to make up your mind, is “No.” But we’d have ‘discovered’ this Beethoven character at some point and been delighted to find the Sonata for Harpsichord or Piano, with Violin from the op. 12 set among his works. What charming music from this unknown composer, what potential! We would have engaged in the only hypothetical game more popular than “What if he had died” – namely “What if he hadn’t died.”

Beethoven didn’t, we know, and hence we are aware of his seven consequent compositions in that genre. The only reason I hesitate to call them “seven improvements” outright is that, when played live and well, op. 12, no. 3, is such a little charmer that you just can’t belittle it. Another much appreciated fact about this work is that – like in the Mozart sonata – the piano is fully emancipated if not even the lead. It should not surprise that Hilary Hahn would chose three sonatas that so prominently feature and rely on the keyboard partner. Playing just to ‘accompaniment’ or, worse, ‘realization’ is no fun for any musician. And not just after this concert do I feel at liberty of accusing Ms. Hahn of being a musician rather than a mere violinist.

Natalie Zhu delighted with her sleeves-up interpretation that was full of good humor and bright-eyed love for the music at hand. While she played the sonata and showed that her delicate size could hardly keep her from whacking the New York Steinway in front of her as hard as necessary, she had a most assured partner in crime in Ms. Hahn. The concert, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society was a thoroughly delightful affair and crowned by two short encores. Prokofiev’s march from Love for Three Oranges as arranged by Heifetz (there it was again, that lithe agility I most appreciate about Hahn) first, and then the audience was wistfully sent home with the sounds of an Austrian lost in Buenos Aires – the Kreisler-arranged Tango of Albéniz.

12.11.05

Van Cliburn Competition Winner Alexander Kobrin at the Terrace Theater 

Alexander Kobrin filled the slot that the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Hayes Piano Series reserves for the winner of the quadrennial Van Cliburn competition. His program began with two Haydn sonatas which is nice to see and hear. Not only does Haydn not get the due in this country that he should, but his sonatas are particularly slighted in concert. As usual with Haydn, he was extraordinarily prolific in that genre, writing 62 of them. Their relative lack of popularity and prominence notwithstanding, I’d wager that among these 62 you can find one for each that Mozart wrote that is as good as his younger colleague’s.

If you missed Kobrin’s performance of the F-Major and E-minor sonatas (nos.29 and 34) this Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, then you might like to catch up on your Haydn with a more seasoned champion of that most Austrian of composers later this season when Alfred Brendel will include Papa Haydn’s D-Major sonata No. 42 in his recital on February 7th.

Kobrin played the two sonatas dry and nimbly, never prone to linger over notes unduly. The Presto of the E-minor sonata came especially came across as closer to C.P.E. Bach than Mozart or early Beethoven.. Compared to recorded artists he was closer to the redoubtable Jenö Jando on his dry and matter-of-factly Naxos cycle than the warmer and more passionate Brendel or Andsnes. In some of the faster passages (and they were fast) he reminded briefly of the tok-tok-tok of Glenn Gould’s excellent but idiosyncratic recordings of the last 6 sonatas, but Kobrin employed more feeling and legato in softer segments, achieving a mellifluous element that Gould chose to ignore. Probably aided by the work itself, Kobrin showed more variety of mood and greater sensitivity in the marvelous E-minor sonata.

Kobrin entered a different realm with Schumann’s Kinderszenen, op.15. “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” was distant and dreamlike enough to convince those of the greatness of Schumann’s piano music that only know it to be great but don’t always feel it that way. More moving in the gentler episodes, “Bittendes Kind” stood out, “Träumerei” a little less so. “Der Dichter spricht” was full of appropriate gravitas and the awe and reference that Schubert imbued the scene with. I’ve heard Kinderszenen three times in the last year or so and this was by some measure the best of those. Admittedly, Lang Lang’s muted and bland performance in April didn’t set the bar very high.

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Alexander Kobrin, Van Cliburn Competition Recitals
In Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux op.33 Kobrin showed that he has much more than just sensitive yet solid playing. He grabbed the piano assertively from the first Etude in F-minor and never let go while, at the same time, never sacrificing lyric touches when the music called for it. His sure-fingeredness in the E-flat minor etude was something to behold; heft was next to whimsical touches in the E-flat Major; the g-minor enchanted melodiously and in the c-sharp minor he thundered to a mighty conclusion.

Variations on a Theme by Corelli op.42 followed and Kobrin lulled the audience into its realm with a performance more seductive than energizing. Despite a broad dynamic range and contrasting timbres everything was part of a seamless whole. Man’s victory over the machine came with the first and only slips of Kobrin’s towards the end of the variations. Between the vocal cheers from sold-out (but not full) Terrace Theater Kobrin threw two short and much appreciated Chopin Preludes encores. A recording of his best performances during the Van Cliburn competition has been made available by Harmonia Mundi earlier this year.

11.11.05

Musicians from Marlboro I 

The Freer Gallery’s presentation of musicians from Marlboro is a mutually beneficial affair that gives young talent in classical music an opportunity to present the fruits of their summer’s labor and affords audiences across the U.S. the opportunity to witness great music-making of (potential) future stars. Since its inception the Musicians at Marlboro series (since 1992 at the Freer) has brought the likes of Murray Perahia, Shlomo Mintz, Andras Schiff… and even if none of the players this Wednesday shall ever reach the levels of some of their more illustrious predecessors, it didn’t make the experience less worth hearing.

I remember a few excellent concerts in that series two years ago and regret not having gone to any last year. I was glad to be back, though – not the least because the program offered the Lyric Suite of Berg’s and the String Sextet in A Major, op. 48, by Dvořák. Before it, we got to endure listen to Beethoven’s String Trio, op. 9, no. 2. It is a fair distance from genius, and whether in mediocre performance or well performed (as on this occasion) it never excites me and always tempts slumber in me.

Harumi Rhodes, truly gorgeous as she may be, was irritating to look at for a while – so oddly animated were her gestures and mimicry. She looked like an uppity marionette with stilted facial expressions that seemed the cartoon versions of their realistic counterpart. That her tone was viola-like at first and not always perfectly in pitch made warming up to her performance a slow process. (Given her father, Samuel, being the Juilliard String Quartet’s violist it tempted with a joke about bad violin playing running in the family – but her consequent playing in the Berg nipped that in the bud.) Burchard Tang (viola) and Soo Bae (cello) were the collaborators in the Beethoven; both seemed stoic in comparison to Ms. Rhodes.

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A. Berg, Lyric Suite, Arditti String Quartet
In the Berg suite the playing (if not the visual) was much improved; this time Ida Levin (2nd violin), Jonathan Vinocour (viola), and Priscilla Lee (cello) joined New England Conservatory and Juilliard graduate Rhodes. When the more difficult works on a program get the best performances I always suspect the necessary concentration and additional practice to be behind that. Whether that’s indeed the reason or not doesn’t matter – it was a delight to hear the four young musicians dig in as they did. The violins stood out for particular good playing, including some ghostly sul ponticello spiccato passages, detailed emotional nuances, and ethereal moods. The Lyric Suite is perhaps the best example that composing by numbers can create musical results. There are probably more extramusical considerations in the work than purely musical ones (based on Schoenberg’s serial technique and laced with autobiographical allusions to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and Berg’s affair with her) and yet the result could not sound less academic. If only Berg had lived longer and been more prolific, he could have had an impact on music more profound than Schoenberg himself, in part because he applied the principles of Schoenberg far more effectively to music. Berg was a better serial composer than his teacher, perhaps because he could apply it in a laissez-faire manner that the rules’ creator could not. All idle speculation – but fun, nonetheless. The result in this case, at any rate, is one of the best string quartets ever written.

Appreciative of the Berg as the audience was, they reacted better yet to the Dvořák sextet, for which all six artists were united, every string instrument doubled up. I am and will remain spoiled by the phenomenal viola sound that Liz Freivogel of the Jupiter quartet delivered (alone and with together with the Yoda of violists, Roger Tapping) - but even so, Burchard Tang made some very seductive noises on his instrument as did Jonathan Vinocour, who had not particularly impressed me until then. The work is not the quintessentially lush Romanticism that the Brahms sextet or the Dohnanyi C Major serenade is, but still a very enjoyable way to keep six string players busy for half an hour.

10.11.05

Sibelius that the Storm dragged in 

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J. Sibelius, Symphonies, Tone Poems, Violin Concerto, V. Ashkenazy / Philharmonia, BSO
Vladimir Ashkenazy took the podium at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall this Thursday, and with conjuring gestures of a little shaman he summoned the most evocative sounds from the National Symphony Orchestra in the Sibelius Tempest prelude. Given the maestro’s Sibelius credentials (his symphony cycle, although recorded in the earlier part of his conducting career, is one of the best available), I had extremely high expectations and immediately countered them by being ready to have them disappointed. No such tricking myself was necessary, though. From literally the first notes on, the NSO produced music of the finest sort, establishing The Tempest (op. 109) as one of the most vivid tone poems out there. The effortless way in which the band responded to Ashkenazy’s guidance suggested very successful preparation in the limited rehearsal time available to them. In the following selections from The Tempest (Entr’acte – Ariel’s Song & Dance of the Nymphs) I heard subtleties and nuance, delicate playing in stunning accuracy that was sheer delight. Only the breaks between the short selections interrupted the flow of the music. The four chosen parts, apart from the prelude, were hushed and superb but in the presentation with that stop’n’go effect made a good case for composers churning out concert suites of their incidental music that can be played as a whole. Sibelius did that and I should have preferred it, I suppose.

Vladimir AshkenazyOnce again the NSO played to a worryingly number of empty seats – despite the luminary conductor at the helm. It’s a common enough sight by now – but with virtually all cultural institutions in the area struggling financially and the BSO, as reported, already canceling some Strathmore appearances (admittedly the odd and silly crossover performances only, so far) we just hate to see lackluster audience responses. This is all the more frustrating since the NSO is batting a great average so far this season – and this concert nicely fit into that string of strong showings.

Ryo GotoIn the Sibelius Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, op. 47, one of the most challenging of the major concertos, Ryo Goto (not to be mistaken for the midfielder from Japanese Thepsa Kusatsu FC) displayed violin playing that should ensure that in the future, Washington audiences won’t have to have him marketed to them as “the younger brother” of someone else. Goto sings with a controlled, wonderfully smooth, and gentle tone. A tone as though he was playing for and to himself rather than the audience in a large hall – which is meant to be a descriptive comment, not criticism, because it allowed for a truly pleasant and relaxed way to be drawn into the music rather than having it thrown at us. All that worked very well with the continued excellence of the orchestra’s sensitive support for the soloist. Ryo Goto may not have the incredibly assured and mature way with soft violin playing that Znaider awed with recently – not yet, at any rate. But the quality and sensibility were very notable. He set the foundation for the success that the performance was, but it could not have taken off as it did had he not had such a congenial partner in crime as Ashkenazy. Only in the finale (Allegro ma non tanto) was some of the subtlety lost as soloist and orchestra hurtled to the finish line. (Ryo Goto's first CD under a newly signed contract with Deutsche Grammophon is now available in the U.S. as a Japanes import.)

Ravel’s Le Tombeau du Couperin took its orchestral shape after intermission. Thanks to Michael Round’s orchestrations of the two movements that Ravel did not adapt from piano to orchestral score all six parts were to be heard. In the Round completion the movements are back in the order of the original work... a work that had pianists curse for almost 90 years as it contains very small sections that are among the most difficult to get right in the piano literature. It is entertaining and wispy music and was delicately performed; with wit more important than perfection. There are not many composers that were better at adapting and orchestrating piano music than Ravel, and Le Tombeau surely stands on its own as an orchestral piece. It is not, however, the kind of improvement (I hesitate to call it “improvement,” even though we all know it’s true) over the original as his working-over of Pictures at an Exhibition is. In fact, since there was a Vladimir Ashkenazy in the house already, I would not have minded a little solo of the original on his part, at all. The Toccata that Mr. Round added and which concludes Le Tombeau in this guise must be said to have been a most worthy addition and apt orchestration.

To see the music of Albert Roussel on the program always delights me. Ever since I found out about this composer (initially – and way too late – through Robert R. Reilly’s “Surprised by Beauty”), I’ve been looking for snippets of his work in concert halls. It usually ends up being the second suite of Bacchus & Ariane, notwithstanding that saying ‘usually’ is an exaggeration. The last time the Washington audience heard this, Roussel’s most often performed orchestral piece of music, was 23 years ago. The Bacchus suite is, to put it into technical and refined terms, simply awesome. The most unusual combination of French character and real guts (sorry, France) gives it drive, rhythm, and mass without marching along in goose step. Don’t strain yourself, but try to imagine a hefty German who can dance. The performance was all that was needed to (hopefully) seed an appreciation of Roussel in the audience. Principal violist Daniel Foster shone in the solo of the suite’s opening.

Repeat performances take place today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM. Walk-ins welcome!

8.11.05

Washington Chorus pits Carmina Burana against the Symphony of Psalms 

I have been looking forward to The Washington Chorus’ concert on Sunday at the Kennedy Center for a while. Just like most in the audience I was interested in one work of the presented double bill; and gladly willing to sit through the other one for it. One work was named the composition of the 20th century by Time Magazine, the other, in contrast, is one of the most popular works of the 20th century. Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was performed first, then Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

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I. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, J.E.Gardiner / LSO, MtvCh
One of the advantages of a live concert is that lacking obvious beauty for the casually musical ear, a work can still score on the account of still volume. If not everyone came away from the first half of the concert a newly converted Stravinsky-ian, many were at least likely to have been impressed. The Symphony of Psalms, a 1930 commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky, is as intriguing and strange as it is unique and magnificent. With its violin/viola-free (yet large) orchestra, the choral parts are balanced to complement (not support or dominate) the naturally wind-heavy orchestration. Set to verses of three different psalms in Latin, the work may be an oddly catholic expression of an orthodox Christian, but its profound spiritual character pervades all of it. Its many different textures and neo classical style, its lean grandeur and angular riffs are all contained in under 30 minutes. Despite being a brief affair, it is a tour de force for the winds and brass in particular. Although the players of the Washington Chorus Orchestra coped admirably, they were playing hard at their limit and sometimes beyond.

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I. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, P.Boulez / BPh
The weather played its part, turning intermission on one of the most beautiful days of the year into something glorious; contrasting sunny warmth with the starker works on offer inside the Concert Hall. There are superficial similarities between Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the contemporary Carmina Burana by the music pedagogue/composer Carl Orff – but not much more. Orff’s work based on medieval poems is not particularly profound, certainly not spiritual and can hardly be accused of conciseness, either. It eschews complexity (which is only appropriate given its simple folk setting) and instead of refinement it opts for an almost ruthless boldness. That it impresses most ears more than the Stravinsky goes to show Orff’s genius in tapping into the audience’s primal sense of aesthetic appreciation.

His experience as an educator, his familiarity with percussion instruments, knowledge of the naïve elements that strike a chord with all of us at any age, are brought out in perfection in Carmina Burana, a work that appeals to almost every listener at once, regardless of education, musical background, creed or ethnicity.

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C. Orff, "Trionfi", E.Jochum / Bavarian RSO&Ch
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C. Orff, Carmina Burana, Ch.Thieleman / Ch&OdDtOpBerlin
That enthusiasm clearly had spread among the performers as well: Chorus and orchestra played and sang with passion and offered a consequently excellent performance that – as should be the case with Carmina – burst at the seams with vitality. An occasional craggy rawness can’t be considered a flaw in this work – and that some players were twitching like race horses in the stall (all-too eager for their entry) could not do harm in music the total of which is so much more than the sum of its parts.
The soloists’ contributions were not of the first order but not inadequate, either. All three struggled a bit with their respective highest notes. Baritone Stephen Powell had a big, generous voice but was stretched on occasion. If tenor (and last-minute replacement) Christopher Pfund didn’t sound better, he certainly made up for it with his coy and humorous stage presence. The playing to the crowd may wrinkle purist noses but then purists probably shouldn’t attend a Carmina in the first place. He was funny in his interpretive miming of the text (Cignus ustus cantat - the tenor’s sole contribution) and provided a jocular element that undoubtedly has its place in a work like this – singing the part of a roasted swan on the spit, after all, does not call for the gravitas that “Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen” demands. Soprano Máire O’Brian sang with her medium-sized voice in a most appropriate plain and natural way, thankfully resisting the temptation to go for operatic bombast where churlishness with such gifts is more called for.

The finale – having come full circle to the O Fortuna – had the genuinely excited audience cheering chorus master and conductor Robert Shafer, his crew, and the soloists with immediate and unanimous standing ovations. Nothing special in itself, no one took them as an excuse to make off early… and that was the most meaningful sign of appreciation on the part of a Washington audience.

7.11.05

Martinů Makes Happy 

The Embassy Series’ latest concert – two performances of cellist Teodor Brcko and accompanist Monika Mockovĕáková at the Slovak embassy – offered one of the more tantalizing programs I’ve seen in a while. It offered two composers I was entirely unfamiliar with (François Francœr and Vladimír Godár) and the composers I was familiar with (Schumann, Janáček and Martinů) were represented with works unfamiliar to me.

François Francœr who lived from 1698 to 1787 succeeded Lully at Versailles (together with François Rebel) was lucky enough to duck the swift justice of the French Revolution that befell most court members. As much as we may care that Mr. Francœr averted historic tragedy by ten-some inches, the survival of his cello sonata in E-Major is rather more important to me, now that I’ve heard it. Between composer and his interpreters the music came out to be late baroque with a very romantic soul. A first movement was driven by the devil and betrayed its late 18th century roots with playful runs typical of the Gallant-style. Far from making the work vapid, these excursions managed to endear it to the ears. The courtly two-partite movement has a delicacy about it that could be called ‘harmless’ – but mostly it just smiled into an audience that instinctively smiled back. It is the kind of music that probably won’t make it on our or our Library’s shelf but also one that we’d be the poorer for not having heard.

A reviewer of the Thursday performance (although I could find neither review nor reviewer) was allegedly full of praise, proclaiming that ‘five stars were not enough’ to rate the performance. This Friday, five stars were certainly enough – but there were moments in the performance were they were just as certainly deserved. For the program alone the artists earned plaudits. Their engaged performances only contributed to that positive impression. Mr. Brcko’s sometimes velvety, always burnished sound was more important than technical perfection or flawless intonation would have been. His and his musical partner’s evident strengths also served them fairly well in Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston op.102. What would have served Schumann well in these five meandering beauties forming a sprawling suite is a ruthless editor who would have cut excess development (and “too many notes”) right out of it.

Janáček’s dreamy Fairy tale for cello and piano – with the instruments roughly of equal importance – was composed in 1910, a few years still before he had his musically golden autumn and heyday that brought us Kát’a Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropulos Case and the second string quartet “Intimate Letters”. This smaller work has gorgeous moments, too, but also oddly unpropelled ones where things get stuck. For the most part, though, beauty prevails.

Vladimír Godár is a contemporary Slovak composer who is not yet half a century old. His Sonata in Memoriam of Viktor Schklovskij is an instrumental, monochrome requiem much in the tonal and subdued neo-spiritual style that we know from its more prominent exponents Silvestri, Kancheli, Pärt, Penderecki et al. It could easily have turned into a bland derivative of above – but with great textural variety and old tricks of sound production well employed, it ended up being a highlight of the evening to these ears. Music by eminent film composer Zbigniew Preisner was evoked on more than one occasion; maybe not a coincidence given Godár’s own activities in the field of film music. If some in the audience did not take immediately to this work or thought it too long by half, it was not due to lack of dedication on the part of the performers who dug deep in order to get this “music with a pulse” to as many receptive ears as possible. For the cause of classical music as a living art over classical music as a museal artifact, it was a minor – but important – victory quite regardless of whether or not the work itself shall claim its place in musicians' repertories of the next decades or centuries. For all the virtues that the sonata had, it did make the point that it is harder to end a work than it is to begin one.

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B. Martinů, Music for Cello & piano (v.2), C. & S.Benda
Bohuslav Martinů is one of my 'stubborn favorites' – a composer I feel very inclined to love, but also one who always wants to be conquered and sometimes disappoints. His beauty can be elusive but if you catch a hold of it, it can be enchanting and more. Detractors quip (not entirely without merit) that Martinů is a composer perennially in search of a style. The kinder variant of this judgement is to declare him “utterly unique”. His biography is very cosmopolitan – Prague, Paris, New York, Basel were his main stations in a life chased by war and marked by exile. Perhaps that is why you cannot place him stylistically. He can suggest Milhaud or Frank Martin one minute, Albert Roussel (a teacher of his) the next and then a home-brewed version of Janáček or Smetana. For anyone new to Martinů’s music, his nostalgic Variations on a Slovak Theme is a great first exposure to this chimera of a composer. It is lush and harmonic like a full bodied white wine but mercifully with zero residual sugar that would have turned good musical intentions into syrupy schlock. Mr. Brcko and Mme. Mockovĕáková delivered it with their, by far, most convincing performance of the evening.

A well played encore (Chopin) did not detract from the positive experience of the Martinů – and more Martinů in form of a second encore was welcome, too. The latter work dashed along with the casual wit of a Monty Python ditty… “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Here's a little number I tossed off recently in the Caribbean.”

Upcoming performances of the Embassy Series – including the Enescu program at the Romanian embassy on Tuesday – can be found here.

4.11.05

I's sat's through Porgy 

Photo by Karin Cooper Porgy and Bess (1935) – surprisingly – has not been shown at the Washington National Opera before, despite having a significant history in D.C. Perhaps that’s because it inhabits a space just between that which is opera and that which isn’t. To me it’s more like ethnic Broadway hurled onto the opera stage, with everything a bit bigger and better than Broadway. It feels more like a well-liked guest at an opera house, rather than an opera itself. But then again, if Floyd’s Susannah is considered a full-fledged opera, why not Porgy? It certainly offers the more nuanced and realistic story of the two. In any case, it does not matter what I think it is or isn’t since the potential audience knows Porgy and whether they will like it or not. Many do – as the well-filled Kennedy Center Opera House proved. And why not? It offers some great music – and if that is wedged between patronizingly racial and misogynist anachronisms, well, you get twice that on each count in Die Zauberflöte.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, 'Porgy': Heaven the Whole Night Long (Washington Post, October 31)

National Opera Defines 'Porgy' (Washington Times, October 31)

Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Porgy and Bess at Washington National Opera (Playbill Arts, October 31)

Jacqueline Trescott, The Baritone's Deeper Resonance (Washington Post, October 29)
Francesca Zambello’s set is economic in means but very evocative. The inner court of Catfish Row is arranged along two industrial-like rigs with doors, walkways and shoddy plywood covers. The gate to the court is made of corrugated iron. It was not unlike her ‘one size fits all’ set for Fidelio/Die Walküre – but far more effective. The costumes by Paul Tazewell were realistic 1930s wear, making the singers look like very realistic inhabitants of their quarters. Slight touches of naïveté – as in the paper-made brass instruments for the church band in Act II – gave the performance a warm, endearing touch. The set (virtually unchanged throughout all scenes – yet giving each scene enough of its own, characteristic flair) was much helped by the excellent, showy, and moody lighting of Mark McCullough.

The main cast of Porgy and Bess is, by Gershwin’s fiat, all black – and thankfully the chorus was (with two well blended-in exceptions), too. It added much to the feel and believability of the setting and story. Fortunately political correctness has not yet gone so far that there was an unspoken need present to place a random white face into the Catfish Row community. It would have been as odd as a Desi mug in the Rosenkavalier entourage – only that the latter can’t seriously be objected to these days… for the better of society perhaps, if for the worse of the Viennese feel of the Rosenkavalier.

Photo by Karin CooperPhoto by Karin CooperThe vocal contributions on Wednesday ranged from “fine” to “excellent” – and although they had declined from the earlier performance I had heard, they sang with at times infectious enthusiasm. From a cast without major weaknesses, the following stood out: Terry Cook’s strong, indefatigable Crown, Indira Mahajan’s soaring and swinging Bess, George Ingram III in the small role of Mingo. Gordon Hawkins – the Porgy of the November 6th, 10th, 12th, 15th, and 18th productions – was completely exhausted by the end of the opera; visibly and audibly so. His rest on November 5th, 7th, 15th, and 19th, when Kevin Gladen will take over, is not only well deserved but surely most welcome on his part. Laquita Mitchell’s Summertime opened the work in style while her on-stage husband Jim, sung by the strapping Robert Cantrell, was impressive without being imposing and a slight sense of vocal fatigue noticeable.

The orchestra performed with all the requisite groove and flair under the Porgy-experienced British conductor Wayne Marshall. The banjo plucked by Michael Decker and the saxophone and clarinet sections were a particular delight. It’s perhaps easy to have a problem with Porgy and Bess itself, but it would be difficult to find much fault in this near-impeccable performance.

The WNO production continues until November 19, with a free broadcast of the November 6 performance to be shown live on a giant video screen near the Capitol on the National Mall on Sunday, November 6 at 2 pm. That event - like a bone thrown to the dogs - is free.

1.11.05

Christophe Rousset's Harpschord Delight 

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Klavierbüchlein, C.Rousset
From his early harpsichord-playing days to conducting the early music band Les Talens Lyriques (just check out the Lully opera Roland for absolute delight) Christophe Rousset is one of the more exciting figures working in Baroque music. And back at the harpsichord he is – after stints with almost every important record label (Virgin/EMI, L’Oiseau-Lyre/Decca, Naïve, Harmonia Mundi) - he now records one set of Bach works after another for Ambroise. I have passed by his English and French suites, unsure if doubling up in that repertoire would be worth the somewhat hefty price tag on these luxuriously presented double-disc sets. Now I’ve come into possession of his Clavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann… and I cannot stop listening to it. His Rosette-winning Decca recording of the Italian Concerto may have much acclaim and it is very fine, indeed… but it does not have that “Wow!” effect. This recording does – and instantly so.

From the first notes of the familiar Praeludium 1, BWV 846a (the name may not be familiar, but you will recognize it if you’ve ever played piano even at the most rudimentary level) on you are drawn in by one of the richest, cleanest, and enchanting harpsichord sounds I’ve heard on disc. I cannot imagine anyone so immune or disinclined towards that instrument (tiring as it can sound at times – especially in large quantities) that they would not at least admit that the sound is simply gorgeous. Chritophe Rousset’s instrument, a Johannes Ruckers from 1632/1745, restored in 1787, just blooms while retaining such precision that every single note could be followed. The Klavierbüchlein is the first set of keyboard instructions of Bach’s for his eldest son’s ninth birthday. It contains a handful of works by composers other than Bach, too, including Telemann and Stölzel. (The other sets, in order of increasing difficulty, are the Two-Part Inventions, Three-Part Sinfonias, WTB (of which one can hear the first ideas in these works) and finally the Trio Sonatas for organ.) The works here may be composed for a nine-year-old and they may be relatively simple… but they are Bach, full of beauty and anyone should want to be able to play them like Rousset. Only listening to them all too many times in a row will bring out the fact that they are, ultimately, inferior to any of Bach's suites, for example. Still, many recordings can delight harpsichord devotees – few can convert those who find the harpsichord’s pleasures to be dubious ones- and this one should do the trick.

The only ones that may not find this completely convincing are those who wish their German Baroque played as straight and rhythmically steady as possible. Rousset gives the music a Romantic tension, a painful magnificence, by pulling the tempi a little, by indulging us with rubato. For me that makes the recording as vivid as I had hitherto not been able to imagine these works played – a revelation along the lines of Alessandrini’s Four Seasons (see my review). Speaking of the devil… he just came out with the Brandenburg Concerti. We might not be able to resist that temptation long, either.

Ambroise 9977

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