Setting the Perfect Tone: Julia Fischer with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra 

Yuri TemirkanovIs the region saving up its best musical events for last? In a season that was less exciting across the board than 2004/2005, we just heard the finest opera performance in The Turn of the Screw – and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s current string of concerts with German violinist Julia Fischer delivered easily this season’s best violin concerto performance. It all seems to bode well for the remaining highlights, Kurt Masur’s all-Beethoven concert with the NSO next Thursday and the two Mahler performances of the BSO and NSO the week thereafter.

First things first: Yuri Temirkanov was back after a prolonged (well over half a year), protracted stay in St. Petersburg that apparently included post-Soviet tales of embezzlement, the Russian Mafia and firing the St. Petersburg Philharmonic’s corrupt administration. (Read Tim Smith’s article in the Baltimore Sun.) He jumped onto the rostrum and, like possessed, with fresh and raw energy, dove into Carl Maria von Weber’s ebullient Overture to Euryanthe. One got the idea that the BSO might have missed their outgoing music director. The music is itself the utmost of charming romanticism – light but never smacking of the facile quality that befalls even greater composers (Mendelssohn comes to mind) every once in a while. Expanding from chamber-like moments to the broad and expansive sounds of the, now expanded, explosive opening, this is the kind of music that would charm anyone’s socks off. The BSO didn’t treat it like a throw-away prelude, either but played with zest and great engagement.

Julia FischerJulia Fischer is not one of the teeny-superstars of the violin like, say, Nicola Benedetti or Hilary Hahn, a few years back. For one, Ms. Fischer, born in 1983, is not a teenager. But more importantly, she is building her career judiciously , step by step with great care, some well-applied self-restraint and what seems an immaculate intellectual grasp. If her bio and recordings (on the audiophile label Pentatone) had not proven it by now, this concert did: she is not a violinist, she is a musician.

Equipped with a prodigious technique (itself being nothing special in these days of violin-athletes), she strikes a marvelous balance between the impressive intellectualism of her senior German violinist colleagues Christian Tetzlaff, Thomas Zehetmaier, Frank Peter Zimmerman and lyrical élan (well displayed by Hilary Hahn). Her teacher, Ana Chumachenko, may have had a hand in this; the same teacher has also brought us Arabella Steinbacher, another rising violinist from Munich whose career and style are not too dissimilar. (I’ve probably not heard enough of either in concert to truly compare – but from what I have heard, I come away with the impression that Ms. Fischer tends towards the pristine while Ms. Steinbacher is more likely to ‘get dirty’ playing a particular work.)

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J.S.Bach, Sonatas & Partitas

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Glazunov, Khachaturian, Prokofiev, Violin Concertos

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W.A.Mozart, Violin Concertos
What Julia Fischer chose to play with the BSO was no less a work than the Beethoven concerto: Not a razzle-dazzle piece, the flash of which is to blind the audience and stun them into happy submission, but a work that demands foremost a thinking player’s approach, lest it fail to take off. Technical perfection and bravura playing can still produce a dud (as Anne Sofie Mutter has been happy to prove with two recordings) – conception and a sense of the complete work at every instant are more important. With her ability to place emotional peaks into refined playing, with her nicely developing tone – never shy, not too big – Ms. Fischer gave this concerto both: the nobility and excitement it needs without veering either into aloof coldness on one side or showy gypsy fiddling on the other. And while the “Beethoven Concerto against Violin” can take any number of approaches, it is especially allergic to the latter.

Cutting a dashing figure in a very red dress as she did, it was not enough to detract from the sternly delicate, searing, Largo where she made the otherwise middle-of-the run, broad rendition of the work sound very special; nuances well placed called attention to the music, not her. Grace and purity abounded. Under Temirkanov’s caring hands – here was something he visibly cherished doing – the BSO performed this and the cadenza-linked last movement splendidly, even with delicacy when called upon to do so. The ripping finale topped it all off in great style. This was an example of 45 minutes of music-making as it should be – and the audience sensed it: The longest standing ovation and sustained applause (did anyone at all sneak out into intermission?) I have witnessed at Meyerhoff Hall forced an encore out of her: Paganini’s Caprice no.2 in B-minor; delicately sawed out of the musical material if perhaps not ideally prepared. Secretly, I had hoped for some of her Bach.

Shostakovich’s 1st Symphony does not have a nickname, but if my vote counted, I’d suggest “My Little Bombastic”. Outblaring and outgunning the two successive symphonies, it is a short, blazing trail of fire and brimstone. A student work of the 18 year old Dmitry, the success of this symphony is not measured by the level of its sophistication (none of his symphonies are, really) or even coherence but by sheer visceral impact. Stravinsky, Mahler and Prokofiev have their fingerprints on this work, but despite those and the early date of composition, it unmistakably spells out “Shostakovich” at every corner and with surprising clarity. The way that the unrelated themes bully each other around – the limping waltz with flute being rammed off stage by the timpani and brass driven full orchestral forces only to suddenly make way for calm; then circus music – is Mahler in idea, Prokofiev in sound, Shostakovich in execution.

Anyone looking for particular sense in the way these divergent themes play off or against each other would do better to give up and enjoy the onslaught before the music is over. The symphony does not ask to be understood, it asks to be felt. Especially the haunting Lento where there is respite found in (hollow?) beauty, a beauty not far from the second movement of the Ravel piano concerto, actually. And with Temirkanov once more leading something dear to his heart, the BSO following most every step of the way, it did make itself felt. A fine nightcap after one of the best Beethoven performances I have heard. So good, indeed, that I shall try to go again today. The third performance, as part of the “Casual Concert” series and without the Shostakovich, will be given on Saturday at 11AM.

A Merciless, Glorious Turn of the Screw 

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B. Britten, The Turn of the Screw, Britten / Pears, Vyvyan

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B. Britten, The Turn of the Screw, Harding / Bostridge, Rodgers

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B. Britten, The Turn of the Screw, Bedford / Langridge, Lott
Jeffrey LentzThere was little advance notice that the season for opera in Washington got an exciting addition, but the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater was filled nonetheless when Lorin Maazel presented Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw on Monday night. Everyone who was there will likely agree: It was the best opera performance that this city has witnessed this season. By far.

Britten’s Turn of a Screw is a fantastic opera – for chamber forces, three sopranos, tenor and boy and girl soprano – but also a difficult opera and not likely to appeal to everyone. All those who attended the Châteauville Foundation production at the Terrace Theater knew what they were into: A dense, chilling, creepy and creeping psychological thriller set to haunting music that matches the action (or unbearable inaction) every step of the way.

I cannot recall the last time I had – literally – chills from head to toe: Here I did; when Miles, the boy, musters his courage, acknowledges the evil done to him and cries out against his tormentor, the (molesting) spirit: “Peter Quint, you devil.” It was but one highlight among many. The cast was very even, very good – even superb. Primus inter pares was the outstanding tenor Jeffrey Lentz (excellent diction, haunting singing, good acting) as former manservant cum ghost Peter Quint. Michelle Rice as housekeeper Mrs. Grose had a marvelous, rich voice; Anne Dreyer was a very attractively chirruping and well acted Governess, if with less clear diction than the rest. Miss Jessel, the former governess, now haunting Chez Bly (the uncle of the children Flora and Miles) in tandem with opponent/partner in crime Peter Quint) was dramatic and ethereal in equal parts, sung by Valerie Komar. Tucker Fisher (Miles) and Jessica Moore (Flora) acted and sang their parts as well as one can imagine; just towards the very end of the opera did one hear the strain on little Mr. Fisher’s soprano. But at that point, drama and acting are more important – and they both were delivered spectacularly.

Anne DreyerThe operas' story by Henry James was adapted with sly and cunning skill by Myfanwy Piper. It combines the entertainment (albeit a very dark, scary entertainment) of a Broadway show with the quality of the finest literature, compelling the viewer/listener along with music that becomes a soundtrack (but none of the negative associations of “soundtrack” whatsoever) of the most haunting sort. Unforgivingly, the story of the hidden torture that the kids have to endure plows ahead. By the end, the opera has the audience in its palm and we allow it to crush us, willingly. Neither goosebumps nor chills were caused by the air conditioning.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Maazel & Co. Make Impressive 'Turn' (Washington Post, May 24)
If one takes to the music – and compelled by the drama one might more easily than by simply listening to a recording – it is impossible not to find it glorious. The chamber orchestra of youngsters under Lorin Maazel was a perfect little troupe. They supplied the passion, Maazel, probably the technically most gifted American conductor, turned them into perfection of playing and expression. Not only were the exposed and often challenging parts mastered with bravura, even the pauses and silences were masterfully judged. Piano, celesta, bells and harp play a prominent role amidst four strings, flutes, oboe (and cor anglais), clarinets and horn. Fourths (alternatively threatening and joyful) and minor thirds dominate the musical mood and run through the score and story like the Ariadne-string – in ever changing, slightly different guises. Layer after layer is peeled away from the horrible truth that plagues the children. When salvation finally comes, it comes at the cost of Miles' life. The – already bitter – triumph of the Governess turns into a concluding requiem.

After this utterly moving experience, parents of small children will have been tempted to set up watch at their youngsters' bed; opera lovers meanwhile cannot wait to be granted another such gift from Maazel and his Châteauville Foundation. Indeed, the event just screamed out for the opportunity to hear other chamber or baroque operas in the Terrace Theater with its very fine acoustic. Less expensive productions for the cognoscenti – Hindemith, Menotti, Blacher, Martinů, Glass, Henze next to Rameau, Lully or Scarlatti – would enrich the cultural life in Washington immensely. Whether that will remain a pipe-dream or not, the memory of this Turn of the Screw will remain something to feast on for a while.


Domingo Notwithstanding, This is Thielemann's Parsifal 

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R.Wagner, Parsifal, Thielemann / Meier, Selig, Domingo, Struckmann, Anger, Bankl
Age hardly seems to slow Plácido Domingo down; instead, he seems invigorated by his numerous duties and continuous love for music. It should be little surprise that the tireless tenor is featured on two releases this month; Puccini’s early work Edgar and, more notably, a live Parsifal from Vienna – both for Deutsche Grammophon. It also isn’t surprising that that recording from June last year prominently uses Domingo in its marketing, his name on the cover in as big a font as that of the actual star, conductor Christian Thielemann. Ironically, this Parsifal is hardly notable because of Domingo (and indeed some may say it is notable despite him). In trying to pin down in a few words why this recording turns out to be so appealing, I am peculiarly reminded of the last live Wagner recording of Thielemann’s where the verdict was: If you like the featured singer (a lovely Debby Voigt as Isolde), go ahead – but the real reason to investigate the recording would be the orchestral playing, the way that Thielemann has with the score.

Here it might be modified to read: If you don’t have grave objections to Parsifal being older than Gurnemanz (a very fine Franz-Josef Selig – although I should have liked to see, admittedly still younger, Rene Pape on it), or Domingo’s still, erm… “operatic” German, or a minor howler from Benedikt Kobel’s First Knight of the Grail, or the fact that you can get the incomparable Waltraud Meier in better voice still on the Barenboim recording, or simply having a second, third or fourth recording of Parsifal (Knappertsbusch, Barenboim, Kubelik and even the self-consciously beautiful Karajan are, all in their own way, de rigeur) you should seek this out for true magic being unleashed in the orchestral pit courtesy of the teutonic Thielemann who conducts in great romantic, flexible fashion. And given just how rewarding and compelling his reading of the score is, above caveats look very minor suddenly:

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Knappertsbusch, 1962

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Domingo may be too old to believably take on this role but at least you don’t have to watch him – replete with hair extensions – on CD, and in Wagner his voice is a smidgen less distinctive (and therefore more amenable to convincingly portray a character) than in any other composer or language; he does not stand out as "Plácido" quite as much. Speaking of language: What he has lost in steady glow since the days of his Lohengrin recording with Solti he has more than made up by improving his German from ‘atrocious’ to ‘passable’. Meier, too, may not soar quite in the same way she once did, but Kundry is still her role; I could think of no one I’d rather hear in it (until, that is, Ekaterina Semenchuk decides to take it on). And what some might consider loss of total security, one could also consider an added animalistic, raw element – particularly apt in Act 1.

Christian Thielemann was often seen as the antipode to Daniel Barenboim. Leading the two big opera houses in Berlin, sometimes verbally sparring, Barenboim as the spiritual descendent of Furtwängler, Thielemann the protégé and successor to Karajan they were pitted by some as Barenboim the ‘cosmopolitan’ vs. Thielemann the ‘German’. That may all have calmed down since Thielemann spends most of his time in Munich with the Philharmonic and it won’t be fuelled any further by this recording, either, because it is Thielemann who is more “Furtwänglerian” than Barenboim, with the tempi magnificently – I don’t want to say ‘pulled around’: elongated and drawn together. At times Thielemann has Knappertsbusch-like gravitas and breadth, elsewhere he is swift and lean like Krauss and all is done with such a sure hand that the tempos only seem right and appropriate, never as if Thielemann were exerting his will onto the work. The balance of the recording, especially as concerns the choir, is better than in the Tristan & Isolde; stage noises don’t intrude. (Not surprising since, famously, nothing is actually going on in Parsifal.)

A glorious and necessary addition for the Parsifal-maniac – but a pricey one. First choice among modern recordings remains either Barenboim or Kubelik (both studio recordings) or, among live and historic recordings, one of the many Knappertsbusch versions. With Thielemann, compromises must me accepted as far as the singing goes; the music is king: Wagnerites and those in the making will want to put this high on their Easter wish-list.

DG 4776006 (B0006574-02)


Wonny Song at the Terrace Theater 

Wonny Song, YCA
Wonny Song
A gorgeous Saturday afternoon assured that only the hardiest piano lovers among the subscribers of WPAS's Hayes Piano Series (still a substantial crowd) showed up for its season's final recital with Wonny Song. The Korean-Canadian pianist played a program of Beethoven, Ravel, Stephen Paulus, and Musorgsky, beginning with the German-Austrian's Sonata in A Major, op. 2, no. 2, which was a rocky start to a variable program with a successful finish.

The sonata's first movement especially was rife with mistakes that came about in the flurry of the playing; Song was seemingly more interested in impressing an audience with tempestuous virtuoso flair than to enter a dialogue with the piece in front of him. There are works where that is the right approach, but this none too challenging thing is not the right sonata for that. Even where successive movements were more carefully executed, they were still a wash of sound, the Largo with the wonderful bass notes stalking through the music rhythmically uninteresting at first, then better when he sped everything up ever so slightly. If beautiful drudgery were not so evasively contradictory… Sprinkling away in the Scherzo, unselfconscious musicality was the element missed the most. On the upside, Song didn’t skip the repeats of this already long (if not always substantial) sonata and always offered a slightly altered mood in them.

While the obnoxiously loud air-conditioning’s hiss altered the Beethoven joy, it was for a patron, rummaging through a plastic bag for what must have been a minute, to interrupt Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso which I heard superbly done by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet last January (coincidentally right after sub-par Beethoven, too). Song took to the work's buoyant moods and changes in meter, its brazen character, much more than he did to Beethoven.

It is new music that interests us at Ionarts and with Stephen Paulus’s Preludes, Book 1 we got just that. The title of co-founder of the Minnesota Composer Forum (now the American Composer Forum) with Libby Larsen and an academic career spent from first to last day at the University of Minnesota spell out a pedigree that suggests to me that the music to come might have been gratuitously inoffensive (“Minnesota Nice” – which is why I left that all-too-nice state). Fortunately that was not the case. There was a fair amount of spunk in these experimental -- still solidly tonal, mind you -- works. Where they teased the ears, they did with a certain amount of risk, not in that Garrison Keillor way of being “outrageous” with built-in bourgeois approval.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Wonny Song, A Pianist With Real Musicality (Washington Post, May 22)
And while still closer to Peter Schickele than Lee Hoiby, they poked around and raised interest – with the notable exception of prelude no. 2, Mysterious, which was a mash of ponderous, unimaginative, pseudo-sensual ruminating, replete with cheap tricks to insinuate profundity. A very modest effort and exposed for it inferiority by the surrounding works: the heavy, turbulent Sprightly and the concluding, unlikely thundering Serene (finishing with the thump of a held low string).

The second half of the concert was filled out by Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (recently heard with Fazil Say). Fast, athletic, superficially virtuosic; more dynamic contrasts than different color and shading was its beginning. Then, starting with a wonderful entry into the Promenade theme before Il vecchio, Mr. Song showed a more variable tone: warmth and soft hues were present when called upon; the chicks dancing a ballet in the shells of their own eggs, for example, were adorable ‘peckery’. Only the Steinway did not quite play along at all points in this display of true skill: for the very lowest notes it seemed to give out.

Fascinated as they were with the Pictures, the crowd demanded two encores from Wonny Song before they let him go. [For a more positive take on this recital, particularly the Beethoven, read Tim Page's review in the Washington Post.]


Dip Your Ears, No. 60 

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A.Bruckner, Symphony No.4, P.Herreweghe / Orchestre des Champs-Elysee
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Wand I

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Wand II

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Philip Herreweghe continues with Bruckner after he surprised me with a very fine (despite derision in some quarters), “historically correct” 7th symphony last year. Employing gut strings and minimal vibrato, Herreweghe digs in with his Orchestre des Champs-Elysee and comes up with another, this time somewhat more qualified, success. Wisely, Herreweghe, ever less dogmatic than HIP-pioneer Sir Roger Norrington, chooses the second, 1878 version of Bruckner’s 4th (amalgamated with the 1880/81 "Volksfest" finale), not the interesting but ultimately inferior original version that lacks the "hunting" Scherzo. (The latter was played by the NSO under Norrington last year.) Where Herreweghe succeeds are the moments that gather energy; his band is best at the (many) musical peaks of the symphony where they achieve rousing, thrilling moments. He is less successful in the softer moments – but given the smaller orchestral forces that might not be surprising: The fewer players, the more difficult it becomes to create a beautiful pianissimo. (The inversion was demonstrated in ideal form when Mariss Jansons had his complete, Heldenleben-sized Concertgebouw Orkest play the Haydn encore in perfect ppp.) The horn call of the first movements’ introduction sounds ever so slightly insecure, and the repetition of the call over strings is not the paragon of steadiness. But come the tutti at 1’45”, the first movement is well under way. The second movement takes much time to gather requisite momentum before it changes from ‘pleasing’ to ‘exiting’. If there were accuracy problems with the winds in the first movement, they are gone by the third movement where the horns dance nimbly along the strings. Timbres and nuance are exemplary and mark the appeal of this recording.

Compared to other versions, however, the interpretation is a tad choppy. Brucknerites with an open mind will want to hear and probably find pleasure. Other Brucknerites will sneer. Newcomers to the Bruckner 4th will fare better with other recordings, though. There is, for one, Karl Böhm’s seminal recording for Decca. It was one of the few ‘great’ Bruckner recordings that I had not actually had in my collection until recently. A grave omission, as it turns out. Böhm is simply unequalled in propulsion and drive. His 4th never stalls, always sounds like it must go on, always sounds as if the music to come next was the only logical procession. You can’t stop listening to it. His Vienna forces play magnificently, the sound is very good. It is to the 4th what Günter Wand’s live Berlin recording is to the 8th. Rafael Kubelik, another conductor who seemed near-incapable of doing any wrong, offers the most liquid account, where Herreweghe steps over slabs of granite, Kubelik swims through liquid stone. That isn’t the most impressive way to do it (at least not upon first hearing), but the cogency makes one come back time and again. (Sadly the Kubelik is currently only available from Japan.)

The great Daniel Barenboim, a sub-par Brucknerian to my ears, delivers the most impressive 4th on record in his earlier, Chicago recording. It is brash, with its fanfare-touting brass, it is a thrill, it is cheap (metaphorically and literally) and sacrifices Brucknerian spirit for orchestral splendor. The effect is calculated but then also undeniable. That and the great recorded sound and the price make this an easy (grudgingly granted) second choice for those to be initiated to the 4th. Günter Wand’s several recordings are broad but never overwhelming, slender in tone, carefully thought out, self-affacing, beautifully done. I love the two late takes I have, preferring the live recording with the NDR (coupled with my by far favorite Schubert 5th) over the -- also live -- Berlin recording by a slight margin. Still, my particular penchant for Wand taken into consideration, Böhm must still be the first choice.


Maurizio Pollini at Strathmore 

Maurizio PolliniMaurizio Pollini is, to these ears and taste, a God – and there are perhaps no living pianists that equal him in my estimation. His recital at the Kennedy Center last year was not only the high-point of 2004/2005, it will rank among the finest I have ever heard. Not surprisingly then, that expectations should have been high for the crowning piano recital of the Washington Performing Arts Society’s star-studded season. Alas, expectations have the mildly paradoxical downside that by not exceeding them, one can fail to meet them.

Assuredly, a Pollini does not “fail” in any conventional way: He is, after all, the embodiment of brilliant perfection. If he can’t charm you, he will dazzle and impress at the very least. Wednesday, in his program of Chopin and Liszt, he was – Leonard Cohen goes through my mind – “somewhere in between, I guess”. The Chopin Nocturnes, recently recorded for Deutsche Grammophon (review coming soon), are already not works that allow for the qualities I so admire in his Chopin; the choices of the op.55 and op.48 pairs even less so than op.9 or op.15 (where I find his recorded versions most appealing). Less susceptible to his strength of bringing Chopin’s depth to the fore, these surface-bound pieces came across as admirable, no more. Still, even at the least involving, the marvelous soft notes – never shy-sounding – demanded respect. Subtle relentlessness and a well shaped, modest build-up gave Nocturne op.55, no.2 in E-flat major its air of distinguished refinement. The slow beginning of op.48, no.1 and its return to the main theme were more satisfying; no.2 from that set was produced in a fine, stately manner.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Maurizio Pollini, Giving His All (Washington Post, May 19)

Charles T. Downey, Maurizio Pollini at Strathmor (DCist.com, May 19)
The Ballade No.1 in g-minor had been bumped up from encore-status, last year, to the main program – and it suits Pollini’s rigor, his iron-frame rubato much better. Those who like his style in Chopin (it’s not the leaves that shake on the tree, the whole trunk is slowly moving), are invariably fascinated by his approach. The difference to the Nocturnes was immediately audible even if his playing stopped just short of having that irresistible power and dynamism I remember from last October. It was only the Polonaise in f-sharp minor, op.44 that overcame hesitance to admit greatness here; a work the right size, length (its rambling middle perhaps too long), depth for Pollini to flex his Chopin-muscles and attack from the battle-station he becomes before the keyboard. This was probing, thundering, detailed and nuanced all in one.

The second half of the program started with deliciously unforgiving Liszt. After all, it is not for Pollini to cater to an audiences’ expectations and play a recital of recognizable tunes or ‘greatest hits’. Perhaps he won new admirers for Liszt’s stern, late works with the impeccable clarity and strength that he brought to it. If not, it surely fascinated those who already find merit in Nuages Gris, Unstern, La Lugubre Gondola I and R.W. – Venezia. The shreds of steely gray clouds that move together and apart in expressionist, introverted style are an acquired taste, for sure, but the somber insistence with which Pollini extracted them- threateningly assembled them- from his customized Steinway, might have captured the audience eventually. The way Pollini grows crescendi under his hands was awe-inspiring here as in the following b-minor sonata, and Liszt’s cubist tonality (as opposed to the molten kind of Debussy or Wagner’s interwoven blurring of tonal boundaries) was given its very own appeal.

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F.Chopin, Nocturnes, Maurizio Pollini
Saving best for last, Pollini played a awe-inducing, forbidding, forceful, unyielding Liszt sonata – that black monolith of Romantic piano sonatas. When the clouds majestically part after the grim and undecided opining, it was difficult not to be touched or relieved. At the speed Sig. Pollini dares to play this work, there is little room for the faint lyrical touches, early on, when the right hand goes on a detour into occasional innocence, thus underplaying the emotional contrasts within. The dynamic band, on the other hand, was as wide as the instrument and acoustic would allow for. Gloriously irresistible, overwhelming last ten minutes (now with more pronounced mood changes) ended in that one-off, almost imperceptible low note. Pollini’s pppp was audible on every seat.

Generous with encores for a frenetic crowd, Pollini pleased with Debussy (La cathédrale engloutie from the first book of the Préludes), and more Chopin: An Etude (op.10, no.12), a substantial Nocturne (op.27, no.2) and the 24th Prelude, it's last low notes, like a bell struck trice, ringing out the recital.


Dip Your Ears... ( 58 ) 

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J. S. Bach, Concertos Italiens, Alexandre Tharaud
Much overdue for its own little review, this top choice among my favorite records of 2005, a Bach recital by the young Alexandre Tharaud, is just about as good as such an album gets. Actually, the understatement isn’t necessary: it’s the best Bach recital on disc I have heard or can imagine! It's absolutely impossible to get enough of this disc, no matter how many times played. It might be a slight irony that all but two small works on it are Bach transcriptions from works of other composers (Vivaldi, Marcello Bros., and the Concerto Italien “after an Italian Gusto”), but somehow that doesn’t make these works any less Bach. Gorgeously, impeccably, tastefully played on a Steinway, Alexandre Tharaud charms, impresses from the first notes. Once you have listened to the concluding Andante from the G minor concerto, BWV 979, you will be elated, stunned at the pure beauty. But really, you’ll find that he had you at “Sicilienne,” the opening piece that unfailingly draws you into this disc. The Concerto Italien is the centerpiece – played with freshness and a firm touch: a delight, but the D minor (after A. Marcello, BWV 974), C minor (after B. Marcello, BWV 981), G minor, and G major (after Vivaldi, BWV 975 & 973) surprise with how much they are the more famous concerto’s equal. With artistry, repertoire, and programming in such harmonious perfection, this recording must be in any music lover’s collection if it isn’t already.

HMU 901871


Dip Your Ears... ( 57 ) 

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J. Sibelius, Symphonies, Violin Cto., Tone Poems, Ashkenazy/LPO/Belkin
There is no dearth of great Sibelius cycles - many are very good and all are less controversially regarded as good than most cycles of other symphonists. Small countries have gone to war over which Mahler cycle is the best, families have separated over Bruckner questions along Wand vs. Celibidache vs. Jochum lines... and small arms fire must on occasion decide which LvB cycle receives the imprimatur.

No such emotions when it comes to the cool Sibelius symphonies. Wouldn't be prudent. Too much good stuff is out there... and even if it were not the necessary top choice, few lovers of Sibelius would claim not to be able to live with any of the three Colin Davis cycles (Ia, Ib, II, IIIa, IIIb) or Osmo Vänskä's on BIS or the almost-complete Karajan cycle on DG or Berglund's EMI traversal. Some English people might even accept the Rattle cycle as sufficient - and only a few people would sneer at the Barbirolli set of Sibelius's 7... although that's already one-and-a-half steps out of the mainstream.

I personally hold Vänskä in the highest regard - but Vladimir Ashkenazy makes a good point in his recordings for those who claim he's a better conductor than a pianist. Indeed, if price is an issue, too, I'd place his cycle at the very top of my list. He's improved as a conductor over the years, but in this one he was already ahead of himself. It is solidly played throughout all the symphonies and then some. Not as 'safe' as Järvi in either of his two (somewhat disappointing) cycles, not quite as all-out as Vänskä. Cool but with northern fire. A true rival to the Boston Colin Davis set. Excellent attacks and a lyrical side. In the reissue Decca threw in the tone poems and the violin concerto - all at a great price. These performances might be supplemented in individual symphonies according to one's own taste and preference (Barbirolli 2nd, Celibidache, or Bernstein 5th, for example) - but they leave little to desire and I can only wish that I would have had them as my first and basic Sibelius set instead of Maazel. (No offense, Lorin!)

Very much recommended.

May I Introduce: Festa della Voce, Insult to Music 

Approximating how I felt, exposed to 'Festa della Voce'Friday evening, Festa della Voce presented a “Liederabend” at the Corcoran Gallery. It was the kind of musical performance that could have turned anyone off classical music, indefinitely. Festa della Voce claim to be “Washington’s premiere vocal chamber ensemble.” Observing truth in advertising one might add: Washington’s only vocal chamber ensemble. Their program consisted of songs for one to four voices, in the course of which they managed to tarnish the reputation of Johannes Brahms, Kurt Weill, Franz Schubert and – presumably – Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Robert Schumann, although by the time they got to those composers I had already brought my ears into safety.

The less said about the concert, the better. The performers shall, for their sake, remain nameless; suffice it to say that none of them had any business singing in public. They are listed in order of increasing offensiveness: mezzo soprano (the only singer with any redeemable quality, although she had no control or sense of tasteful employment for her huge, wobbly voice) – baritone – soprano (a pathetic, squealing sound in the vocal quartets of Brahms), and finally, the tenor. The latter delivered what must be the worst music performance I have ever heard live (and I've heard some horrible stuff); six selections from Die Schöne Müllerin that were travesties of unspeakable (but apparently singable) proportions. Had he treated a physical work of art as he did Schubert’s songs (like taking a knife to a Rubens, acid to a van Gogh, or a hammer to the statue of David), he would have been arrested – and rightly so. A comically painful (but mostly painful) nasal mess without even the most rudimentary understanding of Lieder-singing, much less text, much less pronunciation, much less actual ability. The pianist, a merciless hack whose treatment of the piano was a disgrace, had the good fortune of being overshadowed by the tenor’s superior awfulness. Anyone with any musical sensibility whatsoever will have experienced the sensation of physical pain at this crime against art. How anyone stayed even after the Schubert is beyond comprehension.

Co-conspirators in this assault on music were the German Embassy, the Goethe Institut, and Arts America. Absence of judicious artistic judgment (never mind taste!) is a hallmark of the German Embassy’s cultural events – but the disaster that was this Liederabend surprised even me. The only thing left to do was take a long shower and burn one’s clothes.

ATTEND! - Student Tickets this Month 

Go to the Kennedy Center's ATTEND! website to find out details about the $10 ticket program for students. Here is a selection of events we think are interesting among the ones that are offered. Do buy early at the Kennedy Center Box Office (2700 F Street NW, D.C. 20566) - as these specially priced tickets often sell out before the night of the performance!

NSO - Leonard Slatkin conducts Bartók

Strings & Percussion galore in Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments (original 1920 version), Mendelssohn's gloriously beautiful Octet in E-flat major for Strings, Op. 20, arranged for string orchestra, Chavez' Toccata for Percussion Instruments and Bartók's haunting Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19
Friday, May 12 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, May 13 at 8 p.m.
Concert Hall

That and some Jazz worth checking out.


Weilerstein, Dvořák, Corcoran (Wait for Piazzolla) 

available at Amazon
A. Dvořák, Trios, Weilerstein Trio
Musical families may be rarer these days than they once were; after all there were times when music had to be made in order to be heard. And if you were a second child, you got a viola for your third birthday; as a forth, the tuba. Nowadays: iPod. Still, there are such families – some making music at home, others exploiting their talents with gimmicky (not to say: brazenly trashy) products such as “The Five Browns,” yet others somewhere in between, but on a professional level. One such family is the small Weilerstein clan which involves Alisa Weilerstein (reviewed with the NSO at the beginning of this season) bringing her parents – Donald, violin, and Vivian, piano – along for assorted trios and duos.

Friday they were at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in an all-Dvořák program – no doubt to restore the Czech composer’s good reputation that had suffered so much the night before. Sans daughter, Mrs. Hornik-Weilerstein and Mr. Weilerstein gave a taste of the slight side of Dvořák with three of the Romantic Pieces, op. 75. The Allegro moderato was well played, Allegro appassionato and Largetto (less interesting than the others) exposed some of the difficulties Father Weilerstein (a renowned violin teacher) had, his sound being harsh and ‘scrubbed’ too often. Here as in the following Trio in G minor, op. 26 (the earlier, lesser, G minor trio), Mother Weilerstein outdid herself as an engaging accompanist, receiving for her efforts as much as music and instrument (the Corcoran’s Achilles’ heel) would yield.

With his daughter setting the bar for expressive and technical sufficiency several notches higher, Mr. Weilerstein improved notably in the trio (intonation still being off, here and there) while the cello impressed with a generous, round sound. Felt, strong, and reliable, she may have looked to her father for cues, but it was the parents who might well have looked to her for expression and engagement. That the cherubic Ms. Weilerstein looks at every longer held note as though she was playing Metamorphosen or Tod & Verklärung added a distinct visual (and perhaps audible) element to the refreshingly bold, brazen performance of the trio.

Quiet Woods for cello and piano proved a wonderful satin tone growing into resin-rich wood at Alisa’s will; the lovely short work being a charming vehicle for her to shine. Whether because of the absence of the violin or despite, it proved the most enjoyable piece on the program up to that point and including the following Dumky trio, op. 90.

available at Amazon
A. Dvořák, Cello Concerto, "Dumky" Trio, J.-G. Queyras (I. Faust, A. Melnikov)/Prague PO, J. Bělohlávek
The Lento maestoso, this work’s beginning, was lugubrious – but once jolted into the famous theme (Allegro quasi doppio movimento) the three were more in their element which, generally, they were more often in fast, lissome moments rather than those that called for lyricism, which the Weilerstein trio just never seemed able to sustain properly. Too often then did the melodies seem pulled apart, long lines started and decayed all in the same manner; notes did not float seamlessly into others. Mr. Weilerstein’s relapse to an earlier state of raspy scrappiness did not help to show this masterpiece from its best side; tellingly even the pizzicatos sounded like they came from a toy violin; soft passages were not pleasing. But with the music this beautiful, it’s difficult to quibble. (Those who wish to hear an absolutely sublime version of the Dumky slow movement ought to turn to a relatively new disc of Jean-Guihen Queyras, Alexander Melnikov, and Isabelle Faust. It comes coupled with the Dvořák Cello Concerto [Prague/Belohlavek], which, too, contains the best slow movement there has been since the Du Pre/Celibidache collaboration.)

This might have made for a mixed impression going into the night – had it not been for the three to give an encore by Astor Piazzolla (“Fall” from his Four Seasons) and do so in grand style. All three were in their element: they seemed to have at last as much fun playing as the audience listening.


Shanghaied at the Freer 

available at Amazon
China Song, Shanghai Quartet

available at Amazon
Ravel/Bridge, String Quartets, Shanghai Quartet
The Shanghai Quartet had been at the Freer Gallery before (Ionarts reviewed them last year), but I doubt they ever left as strong an impression as last Wednesday when they played Bartók’s first string quartet and the Ravel quartet in F major. The Bartók opens with the two violins playing the serioso part until cello and viola join in what is part fugue, part post-Wagnerian chromaticism. Counterpoint-heavy, there are plenty hints of resolution that the ears seek out, just without actually finding them. With the care the Shanghai Quartet players took rolling out their lines, executing them cleanly, aiming for passion through precise tension, there is beauty in that first movement not unlike in Berg’s Lyric Suite.

Soon enough, though, an earthier tone enters. Plenty rhythmic drive in later sections made the Lento excellent; the entire movement again being proof how much Bartók benefits from live performance. If the Shanghai Quartet was at times more ‘proper’ than fire-breathing, that didn’t mean that they could not or did not dig in deeply... as they did, for example, in the wilder Allegretto, bringing out the very best in every single musician. The clarity and sonority of every member’s tone, led by a great first violinist, repeatedly baffled. Dedication and precision abound, the mirthful Allegro vivace was quite simply (not exactly a technical term, but best describing it) awesome, ensuring that my favorite Bartók quartet is always the one I am hearing. (Lest anyone think that any Bartók performance can elicit similar feelings, it helps recalling the Calder Quartet’s performance from late January, showing that Bartók empathetically does not ‘play itself’.)

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Shanghai Quartet (Washington Post, April 28)
Ravel’s string quartet is a gem, and the audience’s appetite had been whetted for it. The beauty of the Shanghai Quartet’s playing produced first shimmering, flittering rapture, then a plucked chase, an ethereal stroll, a ferocious final argument. The group was not last year’s highlight of the Freer concert season but barring a ridiculously good Musicians from Marlboro III on May 9th, they certainly are going to be this year’s. The program started with Yi-Wen Jiang’s 2002 arrangements of Chinese songs. These perfectly pleasant works were light and on occasion bubbly appetizers – half East, half West. The Shanghai Quartet consists of Weigang Li (1st violin), Yi-Wen Jiang (2nd violin), Honggang Li (viola), and Nicholas Tzavaras.


Baltacigil on Boyle - and Bach to the Rescue 

Efe BaltacigilThe storm that blew young Turkish cellist Efe Baltacigil onto North American stages happened in January 2005 in Philadelphia, and it didn’t so much blow him on there but keep everyone away from it: with most of the orchestra stuck somewhere in the snow, the lone cellist and scheduled soloist Emanuel Ax hastily rehearsed for a few minutes and went on stage to entertain those audience members who had braved the weather. The result was an enthusiastically received Beethoven F major sonata, op. 5, no. 1. The same work opened WPAS’s concert at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Tuesday – co-presented by the Young Concert Artists Series.

A great future the young man will have (and in fact already has as the associate principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra), but his appearances bear the expectations of hearing something special. It is questionable if he can live up to that at every recital; last Tuesday he could not. The Beethoven, for example, was well played – but lacked any palatable excitement. His partner in crime, pianist Anna Polonsky, made up for some of that here with engaged playing, but she looked more zestful than she sounded: extremes acted out with the body, not always the Steinway in front of her. Wonderful mezzo-forte and up, she played boldly and didn’t hold back (although a little less wild after the Beethoven). Holding back would not have been necessary, anyway, given Mr. Baltacigil’s rich, voluminous sound. More expressiveness in the soft passages, more subtle shades of piano and pianissimo are on my wishlist for her playing.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Baltacigil Soars On Wings of Faure (Washington Post, April 27)
After the Beethoven it was on to a piece by the Philadelphia composer Benjamin C. S. Boyle (did I mention “disgustingly young” Philadelphia composer Benhamin C. S. Boyle? I would hate to abandon even a bad tradition… [read previous reviews of his work here and here]) for whose works Ionarts has a propensity of seeking concerts to go to. Composed in Paris last year, the Sonata for Cello and Piano was made for this occasion and specifically around Efe Baltacigil’s playing. It would be folly to claim that that was discernable, but it was obvious that the cellist took to the piece with gusto, cherished it and its three differing movements. Starting with a pizzicato element that suggests a jazzy flavor, the first movement (“Fantasia” - Poco Allegretto, molto liberamente) quickly changes course and becomes a free-wheelin’, double-stoppin’, roughly six-minute-long work that manages to sound novel and conventional at the same time. It doesn’t deny its 2005 date, but even conservative ears will find it listenable. The pro-Baltacigil partisan crowd in the Terrace Theater loved it. A plain, plaintive middle movement (Lento doloroso) followed, with one short peak of energy in an otherwise limp dramatic arch, haunted, saddened… perhaps because it lost its destination? We arrive at the third, final, shortest movement (Allegro molto energico e espressivo) anyway, and “energico” it is indeed. It was here that Baltacigil/Polonsky created a fair amount of ruckus, much to the benefit of the pleasant sonata. Probably shy of the best of Boyle’s work, it is only an example of the depth of this composer: so-so Boyle still sounds better than many a composer – dead or alive – better works and we hope for more.

After intermission it was Fauré’s Papillon and Chopin’s sonata in G minor. Very lovely, flighty butterfly, that Fauré… but still not particularly convincing as far as the cellist was concerned. In the Chopin he showed us what we knew already: he has fleet fingers, total engagement with the music in front of him, a big tone, a near flawless technique. But his cello never sings, never just plays on its own (only a hint of that in the Largo); it is always pushed, pulled, beaten, driven. That can make for terribly exciting music (I suggest DSCH for a fitting match), but it can also make for listening fatigue, for a subsiding of interest after a while. (This “I’m here, all the time” way of playing may have suited the wide-eyed Boyle sonata best of those four works.) Efe Baltacigil obviously knows how to play the cello – now if he can also be played by the cello on occasion, we will deal with a musician as good as some of the reviews already suggest.

Good thing I did not leave right away (or more precisely: not fast enough), because the proof of much greater capability came hidden in the encore. Not the Gershwin arrangement, although that was nice, too, but the Bach: the Prelude from the C minor Suite (BWV 1011) was magnificent. Finally he let the cello sing. It goes to show that Bach can turn a recital one way or the other: Khachatryan’s Bach left a bad aftertaste following a very fine recital, here Bach was the brilliant finishing touch for a unremarkable recital. So ist das Leben.

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