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28.4.06

Conducting Without a Pulse: Rostropovich Survives, Dvořák Doesn't 

Mstislav Rostropovich 'conducting'What better to open a concert with than an overture to… oneself!? Good thing that Leonard Bernstein composed just such a thing for Mstislav Rostropovich in the form of the jolly, brash, multimedial, tacky Slava! (A Political Overture). It goes to the credit of Maestro Rostropovich that he could conduct the whole thing without blushing – not even when the orchestra members have to should an adulatory “Slava!” at him. (I think this was supposed to be performed to him, not by him… and originally it was his dogs name, not Mstislav’s own, that was yelled out. Back when it was still a joke.) Churchillian sounding faux political speeches interpolated with totalitarian crowds cheering are played from the speakers while the orchestra runs empty loops for a while. All that is not necessarily saying that “Slava!” isn’t fun to listen to… it is. Much in the way that your funny, somewhat trashy, crude cousin from down south is. You just wouldn’t want him telling those jokes in good company.

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B.Britten, Sea Interludes, Young Person's Guide..., Andrew Davis, BBC SO
The contrast could not have been greater to the polished, sophisticated Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. While the NSO’s rendition under Rostropovich’s mechanical baton left everyone safely in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, rather than taking them out to sea, it’s such great music that Britten gave us, it was still gratifying to hear. The fourth interlude was played the best, although I would not have given it the title “Storm” in this particular interpretation.

The work that many potential audience members stayed away for was Dutilleux’ Correspondances, a short song cycle of originally four, now five, songs to very different texts. Henri Dutilleux is France’s Elliot Carter, almost as old, almost as active. He is more accessible than most Carter… or at least less inaccessible. More or less tonal (but not enough for conservative audiences to care), he has moments of great orchestral, ethereal beauty, like in the third and added fourth movements based on short Rainer Maria Rilke poems. The treatment of the voice, however, is modernist-unoriginal and made sure that the works’ appeal was not to broad. The second part starts out beautifully, too. That movement is (not a big surprise, this) titled “A Slava et Galina” and based on a letter of Solshenitzyn thanking Rostropovich and wife (Galina Vishnevskaya) profusely for their self-sacrificing help. At least it isn’t dedicated to the former cellist: It’s dedicated to Dawn Upshaw (and Simon Rattle), the singer with the NSO in this run of concerts. She sang expertly, as one would expect, with her character-rich and strong voice, solid in all its vast reaches: A joy, more or less no matter what she sings.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, For the NSO, a Night With Fine Old Friends (Washington Post, April 28)
To keep the audience members in their seats until the end (Britten and Dutilleux are not acceptable Washington fare), Dvořák’s 8th Symphony was programmed. Possibly as good as the overplayed “From the New World”, it is a work that is easy on the ears, occasionally grandiose, rightly popular with concert-goers. Until tonight, that was. Listening to what Rostropovich did with this work was puzzling. Literally and metaphorically speaking, he turned it into the longest Dvořák symphony I ever had to sit through. Plodding along at insufferably slow speeds, he made sure that musical lines disappeared and that any sense of rhythm here or heroism there were fastidiously excised; emotional subtleties plowed under. The brass fanfare opening the last movement smacked of tin, the following strings sounded better. But the orchestra should not be blamed for this. (Except that they should not only not have looked at Rostropovich, they should have outright ignored his instructions.) Anyone to attend today, Friday, or tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM will come away with a greater appreciation for Leonard Slatkin.

France's Spring Break Perpetuel 

First published at TCS Daily - Europe on April 26th 2006.
http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=042606E


By Jens F. Laurson, co written with George A. Pieler

Proving that any French politician should know better than to try to reform that country's economy, France has just scrapped its modest youth labor reform. Sluggish, inflexible and costly that economy may be, exemplified in Europe's highest youth unemployment. But astounding efficiency (those few hours the French work, about a third less than in the US, they work well!) keeps the system alive just enough to allow all those who have jobs to pretend they can go on like that forever. It also lets those who are out of a job feel it is life's great unfairness, not a fundamentally inappropriate economic structure, that keeps them from reaping the rewards of honest labor.

But if a French politician recklessly feels that he (or she) should align the country with modern economic reality, he certainly should know better than to target those elements in society that have little better to do than protest. Never, never aim legislative reforms at the retired or the young, particularly when the weather is warming up. Especially not students, who are, after all, more than willing to spend weeks protesting for their vision of a future, even at the cost of deconstructing their actual future. All this recently played out in cities throughout France. Kids with too much time on their hands but too little understanding of social or economic realities, exercise the fine art of (not just French) politicking, bombast, and empty-headed grandstanding. No doubt, future politicians' careers were forged amidst these clashes of police and protesters; the more they protested, the greater the chance they might get invited for orange juice at the prime minister's place. Or meet former Minister of Culture Jack Lang, who mingled among the protesters, claiming to have been against this "outrageous proposal" from the first minute.

That "outrageous proposal" (Contract première embauche - CPE) was basically the introduction of a two-year "probation period" for any employee under 26. This was extended from the standard three months in the Contrat à durée indéterminée (CDI), during which the employer can dismiss the newly hired without the usual hassles. A similar law, the Contrat nouvelles embauches (CNE), aimed at small firms, was put in place last summer and covers 400,000 workers. Now a law that facilitates firing a worker more easily is not the first thing that comes to mind when looking for ways to increase employment. But the difficulties in dismissing French workers, once hired, make employers extremely cautious: better not to create a job than be stuck with excess payroll. No employer will take a chance on applicants that show any potential for trouble or unreliability (translation: foreigners). The proposed law aims to create jobs by encouraging firms to take a chance on young, inexperienced workers, in effect reducing what is in fact a high financial penalty for taking that risk. It's a big penalty too: successful US startup companies in the 1990's grew their staff an average 161 percent in two years, versus only 13 percent in France.

But to the French mind -- and Sorbonne-trained student minds in particular -- this is clearly unacceptable. The idea of getting a job with an actual risk of getting fired is an outrage. Better no job than accept this depraved influx of "American hire & fire mentality". This has a certain perverse irony. There is in fact no better insurance against being fired than never being hired in the first place. And to spend your first two years in the job-market not knowing that that job will in fact be the one you keep for the rest of your life is probably too much to ask from anyone who still expects a career like their grandparents and parents. No wonder a guaranteed civil service post is the overwhelming "ambition" of most French youth.

It is difficult not to be frustrated, cynical and derisive about these protests. Somewhere between disdain and amusement, one watches affluent students, mostly unaffected by the proposed law, protest the underprivileged youth out of their job opportunities. All in earnest disgust and supported by unions and every Socialist politician who jumps at any opportunity involving strike and protest. Regular occurrences, these mini-revolutions against change - and tragically comic. Expert at farce, France today would be funnier, more amusing, if the result of these protests were not to perpetuate a system that is in fact unjust. Propel the privileged, keep the social fringe at a bottom. Under the banner of egalitarianism and fraternity, they fight for a status quo that does nothing but widen the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Future generations, no smarter but faced with fewer options, will have to live off the thin gruel prepared for them by the present generation. Bon Appétit.

Jens F. Laurson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Center for International Relations' International Affairs Forum. George A. Pieler is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation.

27.4.06

Itzhak Perlman: A Star Flickering, Not Shining 

Itzhak Perlman & Pinchas ZukermanHighly anticipated, sold out with filled seats spilling over unto the stage, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman showed up at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall for their WPAS presented duo-recital. They opened with Bach’s (or is it?) Sonata for Two Violins and Keyboard in G, BWV 1037. Thick textures made Bach appear as Barber for a while and the mediocre, uninspired pianism of accompanist Rohan De Silva (he plunked down one plump chord after another, never developed a line, failed to do anything imaginative to the basic instructions Bach gives in the score) didn’t help much, either. Still, this apocryphal work is lovely enough a piece for two violins that need to come up with repertoire.


Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Perlman and Zukerman: Double the Pleasure (Washington Post, April 26)

Jeremy Eichler, Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman at Avery Fisher: The Stars, the Strings, the Bravos (New York Times, April 27)
If here, or at other points in this recital it seemed that Itzhak Perlman might be resting on his laurels (but what laurels they are!), with a technique that is deteriorating, a widening vibrato, declining accuracy, that impression was blown away by seven impromptu Bartók pieces from the 44 Duos for Two Violins that he and Zukerman threw into the mix. They were announced with that dry, warm humor that can instantly charm a crowd of 2500. Starting with the Teasing Song (“because maybe we’ll play more after that, maybe we won’t…”), Perlman then introduced with “This is one of my favorites” the Limping Dance, followed by Sorrow, Prelude & Canon (great precision, wonderful folksy touch in the Canon combined with an irresistible beat), then “one of Bartók’s ‘Greatest Hits’”, the Serbian Dance, the Arabian Dance and Ardelina (?)

More than welcome diversion, it was during these short pieces that Perlman was at his very best; much better than in the routine Mozart Duo for Violin and Viola K.423. It is nice, as anything by Mozart, but doesn’t strike as particularly inspired music; the violist Mozart may have given the two instruments equal material, but none of it of particularly interesting nature. Admittedly a random association, the Adagio had me think of freshly neutered dogs (and how little fun they must have).

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B.Bartók / D.Shostakovich / S.Prokofiev, 44 Duos / Violin Duets / Sonata for 2 Violins, Zukerman/Perlman/Sanders"

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W.A.Mozart, J.M.Leclair, Violin Duos, Zukerman/Perlman
After the intermission, Jean-Marie Leclair’s 1730 Sonata in F-major for Two Violins was more pleasing: It’s distinctly Four Seasons-like opening Allegro assai was counterpoint heavy yet possessed a light gait; it ended with a very lovely Gigue. Concluding was what looked like the slightest piece on the program but was most pleasing among the ‘scheduled’ works, perhaps only because it was played better than the rest. The Suite in g-minor for Two Violins and Piano by Moritz Moszkowski (a minor minor composer) is as lovely a piece of music as one can expect for the less-than-bulging repertoire for two violins. It’s adaptable, too: A few weeks ago I heard it scored for bassoon and oboe. The second movement (Allegro moderato) rekindled kind memories of the woodwind (per)version. Perlman found very gentle moments, the finale (Molto vivace) was ebullient and a pleasing affair to everyone in the audience. Even Mr. De Silva woke up a little and played with some life.

Throughout the concert (as for the last 30 years) Zukerman may have been playing second fiddle, but being (in) Perlman’s shadow as he was, his playing had a sharper outline than the image casting it. Not with the same big tone, his sound is clearer, leaner, more accurate. It hurts a little to hear someone – Perlman – known foremost for a dazzling technique to play at a lesser level than their reputation deserves; if he didn’t please broad audiences so much with what he does, perhaps he might like to take more time per recital and play them in smaller venues. That he can play phenomenally well, still, was proven (if ironically) in the Bartók and the encores, six duets for violin and piano by Shostakovich (“…everyone is doing Shostakovich, why should we… …be the exception”). Jewels that made the concert-going experience well worth it.

Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006 

From George A. Pieler comes this appreciation of Jane Jacobs, writer, thinker, urban planner, author of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities".

Jane Jacobs
Other Articles on Jane Jacobs:

Douglas Martin, Jane Jacobs, Social Critic Who Redefined and Championed Cities, Is Dead at 89 (New York Times, April 26)

Mary Rourke, Jane Jacobs, 89; Urban Theorist, Community Activist Who Fought Lower Manhattan Freeway Plan (LA Times, April 26)

Hillel Italie, 'Cities' author Jane Jacobs dies at 89 (AP via Boston.com, April 26)

Matthew Grace (Ed.), Jacobs' Legacy (New York Observer - The Real Estate, April 26)

Matthew Grace (Ed.), Jacobs' Legacy (New York Observer - The Real Estate, April 26)

Inga Saffron, A visionary author saw how cities work (Philadephia Inquirer, April 26)

Adam Bernstein, Jane Jacobs, 89; Writer, Activist Spoke Out Against Urban Renewal (Washington Post, April 26)
Jane Jacobs, the great and original thinker about urban planning and urban (and suburban!) design, died today in Toronto at age 89. Her writings, for more than four decades, had a lot to tell us about urban and cultural life in D.C. if we care to listen. She also coined more than a few concepts that are now commonplace in discourse on cities, planning, and modern life: the notion that ‘eyes on the street’ from local merchants and residents were key to crime control and civility; the critical importance of integrating living, working, shopping and cultural activities into each sector of the city in a ‘walkable way’ rather than using the zoning-bludgeon to rigidly and irrationally segregate our daily activities away from each other; and the post-modern critique of urban planning per se, at least in her objection to the idea of self-appointed bureaucratic exports telling us what’s good for us, without at least paying attention to what traditional patterns of daily life, movement, and commerce tell us about what people want most from city life.

For DC, Jacobs’ work means the Kennedy Center is a no-no (‘concrete plaza’ remote from everything else, with constricted access by car or on foot—no wonder it’s hard to dine and enjoy the symphony etc. in a relaxed manner); the 7th Street corridor redevelopment (if a recent walk there is any indication) is pretty good, with shops, residences, the MCI Center, and art galleries all interacting to keep the street lively. Washington with its low densities and linking of traditional neighborhoods like Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Brookland could easily embody the principles of Jacobs’ “Death and Life of Great American Cities”. That it seldom does is no doubt a function of politics, DC’s strict height limitations, the legacy of segregation, and an overlay of the Central Planning approach to developing and re-developing urban blocks which is hard to escape.

Jane Jacobs, as most of her obituaries note, could never be typecast as left-vs-right (politically) or planner-vs-libertarian (in urban design). The New Urbanists tried to claim her but she kept her distance; same with the Smart Growth crowd. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Jacobs on the occasion of her receipt of the Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum in 2000 and know she will be missed: but her work will not, as it’s likely to influence how we live for many, many years to come. Let’s hope she gets a look next time a new cultural center or arts venue is proposed for the DC area. Baltimore, too.

Piotr Anderszewski at the NGA 

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Bach/Beethoven/Webern, English Suite/Piano Sonata op.110/Variations op.27 , Anderszewski

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K. Szymanowski, Piano Sonata No. 3, Métopes, Masques , Anderszewski
The draw of the renown pianist Piotr Anderszewski and perfect weather last Sunday somewhat balanced attendance at the National Gallery of Art’s free concert: The house was full for all but a few seats, none had to sit outside the West Garden Court. On the program were promising items: Mozart’s Fantasia and Sonata in c-minor (K475 and 457 respectively) played, as the often are, in tandem with the Fantasy serving as a grand overture to the sonata that is barely longer. Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles op.126 and J.S.Bach’s sixth English Suite BWV 811.

Anderszewski has a way of playing so naturally, so unburdened, that it makes you question what could possibly be special about his or any other particular pianist… why anyone might be considered better than another, or what it is that makes us think one good, another less so. Well, what is special about this Hungarian/Polish artist is precisely that ability to appear unmannered and matter-of-factly that one cannot think of the music any other way while played, as containing any ideology or aesthetic statement. It simply is. And that’s what he did in the excellent Fantasia and, playing as at least as well, in the sonata which, however, is musically less interesting to these ears. Adjusting for the acoustics, he took care to provide a pedal-easy, light touch without being kept from ringing out those low bass notes when the Fantasy called for it. It’s easy to hear Beethoven on the horizon in that work (in the way Mozart shifts gear from fast to slow or subtle to bold); it’s surprising how that spirit is all but missing in the contemporaneous (1785), more conventional sonata.

The Beethoven bagatelles from 1823 hark back to earlier works for solo piano, far less challenging or daunting than any the preceding late sonatas (op.111 was finished in early 1822). They are a most welcome contrast to the overarching, fierce-looking God of music, his often gloom and meaning-infused late works that bear an unbearable, intimidating greatness. The step from the Mozart Fantasia to these Bagatelles is a notably smaller one than one would have expected comparing the two composers’ piano sonatas. Played with just enough brio to be joyful, enough restraint to be audible, it was a gladly-heard appetizer to the English Suite.

Here, again, the program provided more contrast on paper than in sound: These suites, at least No.6, is a work that – when played on the piano – sounds appreciably less like Bach… fuller, less concerned with counterpoint or playing one line against the other. (Coincidentally or not, the pianist does not have to cross his hands, playing it.) On a modern grand and in the West Garden Court acoustic, it sounded warm; warmer than it already does. Only in the Sarabande avec double does ‘typical’ Bach break through, it was followed by sensual, meditative Gavottes and the playful finishing Gigue. Anderszewski’s notes reminded of supple, purple grapes, not little pebbles. Then again, short of rolling a harpsichord into the West Garden Court, that’s about the only way it can sound. His nimble playing having been excellent, I don’t suppose anyone in the audience had any complaints about this highly competent performance of a most pleasing recital.

26.4.06

San Francisco Symphony: Slender Greek Maiden 

Michael Tilson ThomasThe conductor walked on stage, a lean, dignified American gentleman with the buoyancy that also marked Bernstein, but an air of refinement substituting for ‘Lennie's’ New York grit. It was Michael Tilson Thomas – just as well known as “MTT” – who was about to lead the San Francisco Symphony in their 10th Washington performance for WPAS, opening the program at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall with the rarely heard Debussy work Jeux. He presides over an orchestra he has turned into what is now probably America’s most fine-tuned, polished band. The SFS runs like a well-oiled machine but its playing, even if not being the most emotional and rarely ‘down and dirty’ as some music demands on occasion, is never routine, always dedicated. That was also the impression they left in this all-European program. One can dislike MTT’s style of subtle understatement or smooth perfection (Chailly-like, at times), but one cannot say that the combination of conductor and orchestra could fail for lack of involvement. One wishes to be able to say that of more orchestras, visiting or not.

Debussy’s Jeux, elicited from the players with Tilson Thomas’ gentle and minimal, then gracefully energetic gestures, was a shimmering, extremely light, elfin-like work that, despite an initial Dukas flavor, possessed wings of silver, a shining halo around it. Perhaps the electric lighting of the tennis court which is this ballet's (to which we heard the score) setting contributed that element?

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M. Ravel, Piano Concertos, Thibaudet/Dutuoit

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M. Ravel, Piano Concertos, Zimerman/Boulez
For greatest possible contrast between this and another work from the ranks of French music from about the same time, Ravel’s Left Hand concerto would have been the best choice. Hearing the ‘regular’, G major concerto, however, delighted just as much. More closely related to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody in Blue than even most other Ravel works, this is clearly among the finest pieces of music in Ravel’s catalogue. The solo piano opening of the second movement (Adagio assai) alone deserves him a spot in the Great Composers pantheon… but then again, without the syncopated, spiked first movement, the slow movement would be lost and awkward. Busy-busy the last movement, the various reeds yelling about like New York newspaper boys: Extra! Extra! Just as the first movement opens a window to the second, the third looks back to the first. The soloist, substituting for soprano Celena Shafer (who would have performed Berg’s Lulu Suite), was Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and this concerto is a hallmark of his. It does not demand depth or particular feeling or an intelligent, probing interpretation; it merely asks for fast fingers and a good touch of flamboyancy. Thibaudet has both in spades and knows how to work the concerto effectfully. The orchestra, a more than equal partner in this work, gave Thibaudet the possibility to shine in the first place: their refinement and spaciousness afforded him to tinkle away little notes with charming softness; the orchestra's soloists (flute, clarinet, et al.) matched the nominal soloist in their extensive, exposed passages.

After the French were finished, the German(ic)s took over (who says history doesn’t repeat itself…): Mahler’s Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10 first (apparently part of the next SFS live Mahler recording, hinting at MTT not going for one of the completions of the 10th in that set). It’s a work that has often fascinated conductors, and it has driven a market for musical speculations that offers no less than four (probably more) performing versions of the whole thing. I confess that in none of these versions (Cooke generally accepted as the standard; I prefer Barshai) this piece has ever made itself understood to me, I never really saw the door to the 20th century or modernism (or anything else) kicked open. What may have been missing was the live performance experience. Just from hearing the Adagio, the only echt-Mahler movement of the 10th, played so well, so refined and poised as did the SFS under MTT (that pair being easily the best current American Mahler combination – their excellent recordings giving proof; Ionarts has reviewed Sys. 2, 7, and 9 so far) was eye-opening.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Michael Tilson Thomas, Still at the Leading Edge (Washington Post, April 24)

Tim Smith, Tilson Thomas inspires magical moments in D.C. (Baltimore Sun, April 25)
This music is made of angular plates with clear lines, sharp corners, plenty definition… glass… – like one of those modern, radar-undetectable stealth-fighters or gunships, but in white. There is none of the sometimes sumptuously Baroque folksy-ballooning that turns his previous symphonies into bombastic, if awesome, works. We don’t know how Mahler would have revised, improved, reworked this movement (only that he would have done it, eternal tinkerer that he was) – perhaps trimmed more fat, still; link the long lines into a tighter structure. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the 10th, had Mahler finished it, would have stuck out of its musical time like a stiff tower piercing the surrounding landscape. No wonder at all that Schoenberg and his boys took many of their cues from Mahler. Another, more parallel influence on the latter was Debussy – and with Debussy, more precisely the earlier Jeux, Mahler’s Adagio had in common that it sounds extremely (surprisingly!) light, metallic sound. Only that the ‘game’ that Mahler would be playing had infinitely higher stakes. And where does the opening of the Adagio from the Bruckner 7th come from that is the Mahler-Adagio’s repeated motive? At another point – a little less than 20 minutes into the movement – Mahler sets a gate, dark, big, threatening, through which the future floods in, invariably. It’s a mark like the opening of the Eroica’s opening, infused with parts Gate of Kiev, part hellfire. Just as soon Mahler goes on pretending that you had not just been looking straight into the abyss, the music is instantly innocent again – but now an innocence we no longer trust. The uncertain falling string figures just before the end hint at a mysterious but guessed-to-be-benign future into which Mahler drops us. If the successive movements would have supplied the answers to the allusions and questions of the Adagio remains in the realm of sweet speculation. Meanwhile we enjoy just the questions when asked so eloquently, so hauntingly.

Wagner parts Siegfried and Brünnhilde after just little over one act together – and the hero shippers down the Rhine to chez Gibichung. That trip is illustrated-orchestrated with – typically – most glorious music. The Wagner-uninitiated listener can take such orchestral splendor with ease: it is usually just the singing that initially turns them off. Although a few people left before Siegfried’s Rhine journey, new converts to Wagner’s music were probably won in the course of this impeccable performance. Once again the slender beauty and devotion to the music paid huge dividends. The crowd demanded more, still, and got it: “The Last Spring” by Grieg.

25.4.06

Goldberg Variations 

Bach's 'Tuning Scribble' acc. Lehman, upside-down, 'readable'

Alex Ross 'Critic's Notebook' - click to see in full
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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Richard Egarr

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Pierre Hantaï II

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Masaaki Suzuki

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Keith Jarrett

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Céline Frisch

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Hantaï I

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Wanda Landowska II

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Wanda Landowska I

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Gould ('55 & '81)

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Murray Perahia

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Konstantin Lifschitz

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Charles Rosen

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J. S. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Rosalyn Tureck VI
Richard Egarr has long proven himself one of the finest harpsichordists in Bach, his recordings for Harmonia Mundi – especially his collaborations with Andrew Manze – being the proof. What he isn’t necessarily, is the most exciting harpsichordist (yes, at Ionarts we think this is not an oxymoron). That title may well go to Pierre Hantaï or Christophe Rousset. Or, as it turns out Masaaki Suzuki.


Egarr’s latest disc is a recording of the Clavierübung consisting of an Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits, a.k.a. “Goldberg Variations” and it enters the catalogue as the first that employs a harpsichord tuning system thought – by its ‘re-inventor’ Bradley Lehman - to be the one that Bach used and preferred… all based on a little scribble that can be found on the manuscript of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Agree or not, it sounds and looks convincing in argument and it sounds convincing on record. (To read all about it - and far more than you probably wanted to know read the description and analysis of Lehman's in his essay for Oxford Early Music publication from February/May 2005 which you can access via this link.) The hues become occasionally softer, there are warmer harmonies. Not particularly noticeable in the Aria and generally not as noticable as I had hoped (or feared), you can hear how some keys and note relationships live in greater tension to each other. There is some 'bending' (but never that ‘out-of-tune’ feeling of natural tuning employed in some early baroque recordings) going on, but a radical step away from what we are used to this tuning system is not, which is, I guess, its point. And as such this recording not only can, but must be compared to other, 'regular' versions, just on the account of playing and interpretation.


Here Egarr impresses with feeling and a soft touch. In my opinion he outplays the fairly similar Céline Frisch on the alpha label, who also includes the 14 Goldberg canons (although for chamber group, not harpsichord like Egarr does) and the two songs on which the 31st variation, the Quodlibet is based. The alpha disc, a CHOC de Le Monde de la Musique 2001 and Diapason d'or 2002 winner, is highly interesting for that reason, but the Goldberg Variations themselves cannot stand out in a crowded field. On the mellow side, they compete directly with the ultimately more expressive Egarr. (The latter's complete accompanying essay - the liner notes only have excerpts - in .pdf form can be read here.)


Either Landowska recording – I prefer the RCA recording by a small margin over the earlier EMI but profess to not particularly liking either, no matter their iconic status – can’t quite compare to Egarr’s (or anyone else’s) just on sonic grounds alone, the copy of the 1638 Ruckers harpsichord caught in excellent, full sound by the Harmonia Mundi engineers. Landowska remains, as usual, in a category of her own. (Here are a few pictures of [copies of] Ruckers double manual harpsichords: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.)


For the same reasons that Gould (CBS/Sony, 1955) is more exciting than the honest, if pondering Tureck (DG, 1998) or the meticulous Rosen (Sony, 1992), Suzuki (BIS, 1997) is more exciting than his harpsichord rivals. He socks it to the Goldbergs; he is explosive at every note. (He also skips the repeats in the slow movements, adding to the overall 'fast' impression.) Is Suzuki full of tender detail and nuance like Egarr? No. Nor does it have the deeper reaching stalky rhythmic precision of sometimes maligned Keith Jarrett (ECM, 1994) that I’ve perversely grown to love (only) upon closer listening. Suzuki's beauty - or rather: fascination - is one of the surface and, call me shallow, that’s sometimes enough, even with a piece like the “GV.”


Pierre Hantaï sparkles in every note on his first recording on op.111 (1992), presents a woven carpet of bubbly sound. Most pleasing – also a surface-focused account (not to be mistaken for superficial). Hantaï’s more recent recording is on the Mirare label (2003), which has so far produced only winners. I don’t own it but have heard it once or twice. The superficial impression is a similar, slightly slower account, less straightforward as his on op.111 – with slightly better, deeper sound. What it did not strike me as, however, was the kind of revelation that Christophe Rousset’s Clavierbüchlein für Wilhelm Friedemann (Ambroise, 2005) presented in terms of sound of instrument and recording.


Among the lot, the choice would be difficult to make – although it is difficult not to be impressed by Suzuki and carried away by Hantaï. Jarrett is less obviously a top contender – but I found him to hold up against most of the competition because his rhythm, perhaps seemingly stiff at first, reveals itself to have spine and keeps the work fresh from the first note to the last, never allowing the tension or propulsion to sag. Egarr presses softer buttons altogether; those who look for sensitivity might find their match here.


Landowska famously responded to a piano playing critic of her Bach: “You play Bach your way, I play him his way.” [Almost, but not quite: See correction by A.C.Douglas in comment section. -jfl] That’s funny, still, if for different reasons. To think that Landowska’s Pleyel resembled a harpsichord from Bach’s time any more than a Steinway D is a stretch. Egarr, however, might just have a claim to this statement. Whether that is enough to merit the inclusion of this disc depends on the listener’s desire to hone in as closely as possible to what the original may have, ideally, sounded like... and his or her willingness to double and triple up on G-berg recordings. For me, this is not a first choice, but a most welcome, well and warmly played addition to the bulging shelf where I particularly cherish Suzuki (fast), Hantaï (sparkle), Jarrett ("The Stork") on harpischord - and Gould (required), Perahia (romantic - Sony) and, as of late, Lifschitz (as nimble as Gould with more interesting rhythm - in Denon's great sound) on piano.

Bach's 'Tuning Scribble' acc. Lehman
Go to the follow-up post on the Goldberg Variations.

23.4.06

Dip Your Ears... ( 56 ) 

available at Amazon
A. Zemlinsky, Symphonies Nos.1 & 2, Conlon

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A. Zemlinsky, Complete Choral Works & Orchestral Songs, Conlon / Isokoski, Urmana, Voigt, Albert, Schmidt, Volle

available at Amazon
A. Zemlinsky, The Mermaid, et al., Conlon

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A. Zemlinksy, The Mermaid, et al., Dausgaard
Alexander Zemlinsky is one of the many semi-famous composers I adore; part of a group to which belong several early to late Romantic composers of distinctly second – sometimes third – rank, namely Messrs. Ries, Raff, Onslow, Jadin, Rott, Wellesz, Wilms, Saygun, Schreker, Pfitzner, von Schilling, Rezniek, Schoeck, Szymanowski. They span a stylistic period that ranges from post-Mozartian/early Beethoven to the onset of Modernism (the break is audible between Wellesz’s fourth and fifth symphony). Among these, I have clear favorites. Pfitzner, Ries, and – Zemlinsky. So it is with particular pleasure that I see EMI regurgitate its Zemlinsky recordings at budget price. So far, three recordings that James Conlon made with the Cologne Orchestra have been reissued – the choral works and orchestral songs lumped together on one “GEMINI” twofer and the symphonies nos. 1 & 2 on the budget label EMI ‘Encore’.

Missing from the reissues is still Zemlinsky’s most famous and arguably best orchestral work, the tone poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) and the beautiful Lyric Symphony. That recording was my first exposure to Zemlinsky and the beginning of a lasting love – but truth be told, Conlon has very strong competition here, in particular from the excellent Thomas Dausgaard and, in SACD sound, Antony Beaumont (both on Chandos). Where Conlon, to the best of my knowledge, has no competition (Chailly, the other notable Zemlinsky proponent, has recorded a few psalms spread out on various discs... and even so, it is difficult to imagine these works done any better) are those works that combine orchestra and voice. And these works are stunningly beautiful, too. Running the gamut from Mahler (who conducted Zemlinsky's first opera and whose later wife, Alma, he almost snagged) to early Schoenberg (whose counterpoint teacher he was briefly and who married Zemlinsky's sister, Mathilde) and – in the orchestral songs – Richard Strauss, this is a high point of late Romantic, chromatic writing for big forces. Unlike Mahler, Zemlinsky is not so concerned with creating a bigger canvas in this post-Tristan-chord world; instead, he goes for squeezing the music a little harder, still, for its last drops of tonality. He does this without ever losing sight of a lush musical language, easily enjoyed and understood by anyone who can take Wagner or late Strauss. In the orchestral songs, one could be excused for thinking of Die Frau ohne Schatten.

The symphonies are a different kettle of fish. Here he can write a slow movement that has a melodic sweetness we find in Grieg, only to move on to pre-Mahlerian, perhaps Sinding-like (another more or less obscure composer I love) structures. Great works? Unlike the choral works, which probably are (singers like Isokoski, Urmana, Voigt help!), the symphonies won't make a lasting claim to greatness, per se. But eminently, thoroughly enjoyable they are - which is more than you can say about much else - and at such a bargain price, who could resist?

(Alex von Zemlinsky's consequent personal story was a less than happy affair, at least its end. His father converted to Judaism to marry Zemlinsky's Jewish mother, and Alex was raised in the Viennese Sephardic community. In 1899, he converted to Protestantism -- like Schoenberg, or Mahler [in Mahler's case it was Catholicism]. After the Anschluss Zemlinsky fled to Manhattan via Prague, where he arrived on December 23rd. Less than four years later he died in the U.S. in the company of his wife but generally isolated, jobless, unproductive, ill.)

21.4.06

There Is a Firebird in My Pastorale 

Sean Scully, 'Black Fold'
Sean Scully - Black Fold
“Wild’n’Crazy” programming at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall saw the ‘Symphony’ before ‘Concerto’ and ‘Overture’ – with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos opening the National Symphony Orchestra’s concert on a magnificent spring day, appropriately enough, with Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the Pastorale. The programming worked out nicely, after all, because in a way, this popular, beautiful, serene symphony whetted the appetite for the second half: Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin Concerto and Stravinksy’s 1919 version of the Firebird.

De Burgos, who was Principal Guest Conductor of the NSO from 1980 to 1988, conducted with the confidence and steadiness of a Kapellmeister but the lilt and gait that a native Spaniard might more likely possess than a Teutonic time-beater. He safely guided the NSO through the symphony but could not prevent some sour departures from the planned course, courtesy of strings and horns in the first movement and, embarrassingly, the trumpets in the fifth. If marked by unevenness, the whole had a light horizontal drive to it, the freshness of linen fluttering on cloth lines in the sun for the second movement, a soft, comfortable, and wholesome quality: chicken-soup for the musical soul. Turning one’s Beckmesser-counter off, there was a nice dense quality to enjoy from the sound of the orchestra – and a round, full third movement was followed a forceful thunderstorm that reminded of Don Giovanni’s Commendatore scene.

available at Amazon
Beethoven/Shostakovich, Violin Sonata no. 7/Viola Sonata, Julian Rachlin/Itamar Golan
If that had been a beginning marred by individual flaws, the second half improved on all that was good, now fortified with individual excellence. There was a great melding of solo violin and orchestral violins in the beginning of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto: soft shudders shook through the orchestra. The NSO under De Burgos mustered a solid, broad-shouldered sound, yet agile enough to do all the jumpy moves that the score demands. The work can be done flightier, lighter, harsher, or with a greater metallic quality – but this rendition showed it needn’t be that way. Julian Rachlin’s assured, big tone did much towards the success of the performance, surely heard still on the least seats in the Kennedy Center, even in the many delicate moments. Square-jawed rather than sliver-spiderly or modest/agile, he seemed to thrive on the interaction with the orchestra, driving them on to give more. Digging into his 1741 ex-Carrodus Guarnerius del Gesù, Rachlin really got fired up for the pumping, throbbing third movement. Clearly in the driver's seat he had fun taking the concerto to the maximum it can give (and inaccuracies be damned) while the NSO responded with the level of playing that one wishes they’d never play below – and above, on very special occasions.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, NSO Musicians Dampen 'Pastorale,' Soar on 'Firebird' (Washington Post, April 21)

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Symphony (DCist.com, April 21)

T. L. Ponick, Violinist Rachlin springs on Prokofiev (Washington Times, April 22)
The Firebird started with NSO-untypical great color from the hushed strings and showed a dynamic range under De Burgos that is seldom observed. The ripped chords through Stravinsky’s most accessible ballet score were “as loud as it gets” (decibels are always exciting in a concert hall – and here they were called for); Lambert Orkis, however, was barely heard laboring away at the piano. No matter, this was the sound of an orchestra having fun, produced an unusually cohesive whole, and was, contradictory as it might seem, very exciting and some of the warmest and more relaxed music-making from the NSO this season. Repeat performances take place tonight, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM. Students might be able to get ATTEND! tickets for the Friday performance.

20.4.06

NSO Tracker 

"Our band," the National Symphony Orchestra was on a national tour, their last one under Leonard Slatkin. Here is a hint at the impression they left in their wake: reviews from their performances and articles relating to their tour.

On the NSO's "four-day residency" in Nebraska:

"Symphony sweeps through Nebraska" (only as .pdf file)
Omaha World Herald
By Ashley Hassebroek
March 30, 2006

"National Symphony does what it does best" (only as .pdf file)
Omaha World Herald
By Ashley Hassebroek
April 2, 2006

Chicago: The Job He's Eyeing?

"Slatkin visit may be peek at future"
Chicago Tribune
By John von Rhein
April 2, 2006

On the same topic:
"Slatkin Rumored to Be Eyeing Barenboim's Chair at Chicago Symphony"
By Vivien Schweitzer - Playbill Arts
April 3, 2006

"Slatkin and National in fine form" (only as .pdf file)
Chicago Sun-Times online
By Wynne Delacoma
April 4, 2006

"Slatkin Takes NSO Beyond its Years" (only as .pdf file)
Chicago Tribune
By John von Rhein
April 4, 2006

Little by way of love from Philadelphia

Preview & Article
"A modern maestro makes fine tradition - Slatkin to conduct NSO at Kimmel" (alternative .pdf file)
Philadelphia Inquirer
By David Patrick Stearns
April 05, 2006

"An unenlightening visit from National Symphony" (alternative .pdf file)
By Peter Dobrin
Philadelphia Inquirer
April 07, 2006

Welcome, New Brunswick!

"National becoming a force"
Newark Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
Thursday, April 06, 2006
By Willa J. Conrad

New York, New York:

"Dark Mood in America, Supercharged Emotions in Europe" (alternative .pdf file)
New York Times
April 10, 2006
By Bernard Holland

17.4.06

Seven Difficult, Impressive Words From James MacMillan 

James MacMillanThe United States, country of paradoxes and riddles, has a funny (sometimes sad, at other times perplexing) way of dealing with its religious history. There are politicians who rule as if this is a Christian country although, politically, it isn’t… who are only too happy to exploit religious sentiment; pander to prejudice over reason. There are cultural administrators who develop paroxysms pretending this isn’t a Christian country, although given its cultural history, it is. Easter, however, the drive towards religio-cultural sterility stops for a while – and we can listen to works like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion like last Thursday (and unlike last year, thankfully without the political-correctness disclaimer) or, intriguingly, the native Scot James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross last Friday at Strathmore.

Although a dozen years old, MacMillan’s work received its premiere performance in the region by Norman Scribner and the Choral Arts Society of Washington (ChASo). Composed for a BBC television series for Holy Week, it has recently gotten a shot in the arm with an – upon second hearing – excellent recording by Polyphony under Stephen Layton on hyperion. The work and the recording have received highest of praise; responding to it in ways I admittedly could not, after an initial hearing. All the more exciting to hear the work live then. If the ChASo and Scribner did not deliver the answer to the question as to why (or whether) MacMillan’s Seven last Words is indeed a great work, they handed over the key.

Far from being a self-explanatory, easily digestible piece of music (as suggested by a gushing American Record Guide reviewer), these seven words (the setting a choral tradition in line with Schütz, Haydn, and Dubois, who all found very different answers to the challenge of setting seven utterances coming to a total of some four dozen words) are purposely challenging, variously spiky and austere, at times even grating and harsh. Just as much it can turn to the beautiful and overwhelming. Whoever wouldn’t be moved by the outbreak of Pärt-reminiscent crystalline beauty, showered with sudden rays of sun to the words of “Venite adoremus” in the third part, after “Verily, I say unto you…”? It follows and is followed by an ancient plainchant, two basses taking “Ecce Lignum Crucis” above a humming drone, then tenors repeating the same, then mezzos, and finally sopranos. All suggests the sound of what we think music in ancient Palestine might have sounded like. It is here that the music betrays its TV roots; it appeared, even without the knowledge of its first use, a sophisticated soundtrack for The Passion of the Christ or somesuch other film.

available at Amazon
J. MacMillan, Seven Last Words From the Cross, et al., Polyphony/Layton
Alas, here, as throughout the work, there are abrupt changes in vocal, choral, and sometimes orchestral line that don’t make for easy following of the music. Understanding what the composer aims for helps tremendously in appreciating it as music (much like you don’t understand a word if someone quickly spoke to you in English when you expected French but, knowing it to be English, naturally understand everything). The edges and corners MacMillan throws into the music ensure that repeated listening produces increasingly greater enjoyment. Rhythmically the work tends to be simple, the tension it builds comes from attacking tonality from all sides, never leaving it but rarely settling in it comfortably. In Bach’s Matthew Passion, Jesus loses his halo (in form of the first orchestra's strings that always accompany him) as he loses faith and utters the words “Eli, Eli lama sabachthani?” In MacMillan, surely influenced by that work, if less audibly so to my ears than other commentators, that scene is set to a dark, sharp-edged music but not too different from some of the broodingly shimmering rest.

Other Reviews:

Grace Jean, Choral Arts Society Bears 'Cross' Nobly (Washington Post, April 17)
The basses growl “I thirst” in the fifth section, the high voices shriek out the Good Friday reproaches. Part six, “It is finished,” displays the kind of doom that every commentator and MacMillan himself, perhaps, want to see Shostakovich in – I hear Bernard Herrmann in it and the jagged attacks from the Psycho soundtrack hacking away like scavenging birds on a corpse. It ends with barely breathed, many small whimpers after which the composer specifically asked that no applause take place. Still holding his hands up, Norman Scribner walked off the stage, ensuring only a few ill contained bursts of applause.

Despite its difficulties, despite some curious choices (most of which become more logical upon repeated exposure), despite its stark nature, this may well be the best Anglo-American large-scale sacred composition I have heard since Adams’ El Niño and Lauridsen’s (somewhat sweet) Lux Æterna (both of which The Seven last Words actually predates). Far more inspired, inspiring, and moving than the samba, mambo, salsa-influenced, maracas-touting, semi-mediocre, pseudo-religious Masses and passions that have been performed and recorded in the last decade. The whole being greater than the sum of its parts, the ChASo’s performance made me revisit and thoroughly appreciate the recording with its more precise, clean, and better-defined chorus than this (still very good) live performance offered. The largest quibble: if you have to ask people not to applaud (because it’s such a very meaningful work, so sacred, oh-so moving), it’s probably a sign that you have failed on that account. It’s easily good enough a work to be enthusiastically or quizzically applauded. It’s not good enough for silence reserved only for the most spiritual of Bruckner or most searing of Mahler performances.

Süssmayer at Mozart's deathbedFollowing MacMillan came the mostly-Mozart Requiem, K. 626; myth-laden, ever popular. Backed by a nearly 200-throat strong choir, it got a smooth, well-oiled, supple, and moving performance from Introitus full circle to Lux Aeterna. The chorus was excellent, the orchestra did what it was asked to do and did it well: no more and, more importantly, no less. The soloists were a fine Elizabeth Keusch (soprano, big voice, pleasant, lightly veiled), an equally fine bass in Mark Risinger, mezzo Linda Maguire (faux-operatic, affected, ineffective), and the overtaxed, lost-sounding tenor John McVeigh, who presented his strapping good looks but sounded like the roasted swan in Carmina Burana. None of these shortcomings prevented Scribner and his forces to give an appropriately moving, beautiful performance to which the crowd gave an enthusiastic reception.

14.4.06

Rilling, With a Message From Bach 

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Rilling

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Richter

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Harnoncourt III

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Herreweghe II

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J. S. Bach, Matthäus Passion , Suzuki

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Koopman II
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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Karajan, live 1950 (w/Ferrier)

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Brüggen

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Gardiner

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, McCreesh

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Mengelberg

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J.S.Bach, Matthäus Passion, Karajan II
Helmuth Rilling is one of the great Bach conductors of our time, on par with fellow John Elliot Gardiner, Nicolaus Harnoncourt, Masaaki Suzuki, Ton Koopman and Philippe Herreweghe. He is, next to Pieter Jan Leusink (Brilliant), the only conductor to have recorded and issued the complete Bach cantatas (Harnoncourt’s set is partly conducted by Gustav Leonhardt, Gardiner has recorded all, but not yet issued – the 6th volume on SDG (no.19) just was released last week – Suzuki and Koopman have not quite finished their traversal yet). Unlike the aforementioned, Rilling is not married to the idea of performing Bach on original instruments, although his performances are informed by the baroque style. In a way, Rilling is the continuation of what Karl Richter started: Modern performances of Bach, trimmed of all the excess of the earlier part of the 20th century. The proof is in the pudding – in the form of the St. Matthew’s Passion – and the National Symphony Orchestra, the UMD Concert Choir and the Children’s Chorus of Washington served that pudding last night (and will again, today at 1:30PM and tomorrow at 8PM) under Rilling’s experienced guidance.

Written for Good Friday, the Matthäus Passion – The Passion According to St. Matthew – is the greatest of Bach’s works; at the very least literally. It is, like few other works of art, one of the pillars of Western civilization, and was never thought off as any less for the last 180 years in which it has been performed on a regular basis. If the NSO played this work only for the third time in its history (two performances in April of 1968 were the previous outings), there are fortunately other organizations in DC that will fill the gap. Last year it was a lovely performance by the Choral Arts Society of Washington.

If the performance last year was extraordinarily moving and featured well honed choir, Rilling and the NSO offered a better orchestral contribution and better soloists. The University of Maryland choir, too, was very fine – but offered a few weak spots. “S’s” and “t’s” were hissing noisily, the balance of the second choir was often less than ideal. Accentuated phrases burst forth from them that often startled the listener. Much of that was made up with the exciting back and forth between the two choirs – set up on the left and right of the stage, facing each other. When they came to screaming “Barabas” they made an exquisite, appropriately unholy noise; the fast crescendo at “Was gehet uns das an?” was impressive, too.

The Bach passions can center around the Evangelist who does the lions’ share of the work or shift to Jesus (not entirely inappropriate, either, come to think of it) when the latter is more outstanding than the former. With the notable Christian Gerhaher as Jesus, that’s exactly what happened. Strong, mature, pleasant, full of character – his was an outstanding performance. He was, in more than one way, to Jesus what Peter Schreier was to the Evangelist – and equally put his stamp on the performance, equally dominates the memory of the night. This is not to say that Lotha Odinius’ Evangelist was sub-par – far from it. Although not exactly stentotiran, he delivered a felt performance that only got better the more he sang. His voice is less strong in the upper registers but compensated with a nicely ringing middle and lower register. Bass Georg Zappenfeld did well as Judas, Pilate, Peter, Second Priest et al., especially taking to “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein”, the works’ last aria. In timbre he was surprisingly close to Mr. Odinius, ever nimble, solid, never roaring. Tenor Thomas Michael Allen (a.k.a. Tom Allen) showed a large, operatic voice as the second priest and in a few arias.

Kate RoyalIngeborg Danz’s contralto did not impress, it convinced. Not a big voice nor at all flashy or (in the literal sense) outstanding, she seemed very pleasing at first; reminding of a Lieder singer’s voice like Gerhaher (both are renown in that field). But by “Können Tränen meiner Wangen…” the effortless beauty of her singing made clear why she is such a cherished and sought-after Bach singer. Quite different in appeal – but no less so – was the strikingly beautiful Kate Royal who gave her U.S. debut in this performance. With her hair in a tight bun, the broad shoulders set against a beautifully elegant, unadorned dress she was half Pilate’s Wife, half ck model. She has some power in her voice but also plenty of light and clearness. One hopes it won’t darken too much: Right now it’s Heidi Grant-Murphyesque with more juice… making her an ideal Mahler 4th candidate, for example.

The orchestra contributed greatly to this clean, smooth performance. From the very brisk beginning to the end they played well, even if a few soloists got less secure as the Passion wound down. The opening of the second part, “Ach! Nun ist mein Jesus hin” was a bit bumpy, the Viola da gamba solo at “Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen” went awry for a while. Nurith Bar Josef’s incandescent solo before “Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen” (only a few tiny insecurities) was a delight. The only thing that did not please were the many empty seats in the Kennedy Center. Perhaps the residents of Washington don’t know that attendance will wash them free of their grave sins (God knows most in this town need a double helping of that)? Hearing some of the finest music composed en route, there must be hope that more people find their way to the Kennedy Center for the remaining performances.

12.4.06

Puppy on the Piano: The Fascination That Is (Or Isn't) Fazil Say 

Fazil Say - Photo by Michael VonlanthenThe excitement of the audience present for the Fazil Say recital on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon did somehow not translate into sheer numbers of attendees: Shriver Hall looked surprisingly empty for what promised to be one of the most exciting concerts in their Piano Celebration series. But perhaps it was for the better because much of that excitement evaporated the second it was announced that Mr. Say would not be playing the Rite of the Spring (technical problems with the second piano) but instead “what more could you ask for” the Mus(s)orgsky Pictures at an Exhibition. The rhetorical question by the announcer was unfortunate because everyone in the audience must have had the answer read: The originally planned Stravinsky, for one, would be something we would have wished for more. Alas, one makes due with what is given – and to be fair, a Pictures performance from Say is a pleasant prospect – especially since I’ve only heard that work live once before in what turned out to be a terminally boring performance of Kissin’s in Munich.

For the unaltered first half, Say had programmed the Bach/Busoni Chaconne in d-minor from the 2nd Partita for solo violin. The fine chorale-like moments early into the piece sounded like an organ transcription, elsewhere there was loud ringing bombast of a simplistically glorious kind. Say is the right pianist to play these works (especially in Busoni transcriptions which are piano pendants to what Stokowski would do to Bach) if you can let go of the idea that the result ought necessarily resemble Bach. The young Turkish pianists carries around an attitude (somewhere between Robert DeNiro – “I coudda been’a contender” – and Marlon Brando – “The Horror, the horror”) that makes any big, bold, possibly romantic, Graingeresque, Feinbergian or Busoniïsh Bach treatments believable

DumboBeethoven’s Appassionata need not be played over the top or muscle-bearing or as uncontrolled-stormy as Say presented it. In fact, the stern inner restriction that a Pollini brings to it ultimately creates more energy than the white heat of Say’s passion that dissipates as soon as it is conjured. That said, I’ll take this pianists’ wilfulness over blandness, always; over any other colleague’s idiosyncrasies most of the time. Say has forgiveness for transgression built in those very transgressions. They don’t appear contrived or borne out of a calculating sense of having to be outré. Instead there seems a naïve joy at work – not even any particular musical sophistication – that touches the core, that energizes even the most cynical or conservative audience. He tromps through the music like Dumbo, transforms into a kid with and through the music. Not precocious but genuine, with believable and self-absorbed innocence. ‘Exaggerate those second movement counter rhythms if you wish – as long as you are having fun, baby! Blow your puffy cheeks, stick it to that obstinate chord, nimble down that passage – sloppy if need be; go ahead and hum.’

Compared to Glenn Gould who, for all his undeniable genius and superior skill, comes across as an unbearably pompous ass even from beyond the grave when it came to his pontificating about- and abusing of- Beethoven, Mozart, etc., Say’s behavior is not (as) intolerable. After all, who has ever been mad at an oversized puppy-puppy for playing too rambunctiously? Say leaves the musical carpet stained – but, golly, I’d rather that than the fussy Ohlssons or Serkins or Reichenbachs of this world pick the crumbs off it, with thin lips and a sour look on their face. Urtext and authenticity fans ought to be wary; they might suffer a mild heart attack from a Say performance. Not exactly a pianist’s pianist, he seems more interested in entertaining himself than the music at times – but then, that works for most of the audience most of the time.

Where it didn’t work so well was the Pictures performance. Say pressed buttons rather than playing strings. Where he is not interested in developing character of tone he expresses himself through dynamic choices and rhythmic inflections. (What would he ever do with all the Liszt instructions of the Beethoven symphony transcriptions? And yet I imagine he could turn those into an exciting rollercoster ride, too.) Hypnotic rhythms and waving of hands were present, he was at home in “loud” and “fast” where his playing showed an earthy (others might say: crude) quality. With a piece that is by nature asks for 'pretty loud', it is questionable how much Say can add. “Loud” harder, I guess. Whereas the Rite is rhythm driven, suiting Say, the Pictures demand mostly color… and that was lacking in an – at times – monochrome performance.

The enthusiastic crowd demanded an encore. The first was the same he gave at his Baltimore and Strathmore concerts and if it had remained the only one, he could well have been accused of laziness. But then came two more encores and they won over everyone who had until then perhaps resisted to be charmed: A Gershwin paraphrase was absolutely first rate, suddenly included unique colorings (by playing out the overtones he created little hollow bells), had a lounge-casual atmosphere about it, was saloon pianism of virtuoso quality, breathed in with the life of part Monty Python and part Deadwood.

Then came what at first seemed a inherently careless, bored K311 Rondo, but that turned out to be hoaxified, played backwards, as honky-tonk, inverted and drunk and was out-of-competition hilarious. Plenty then to digest from that recital – situated between misdemeanor and defilement, expert pianism and pure show. The mix is not for everyone but Say can probably sell it to more than think they would take to that kind of a recital.

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