Concert Review: Hamelin Pinch-Hits for Lang Lang, Belts Home Run

Marc-André Hamelin

Two nights ago, Marc-André Hamelin stepped up to the plate in Seattle to pinch-hit for an ailing Lang Lang, who is reported to have been sidelined since last April with inflammation in his left arm.  Not an easy assignment, filling in for the Chinese superstar.  How did Hamelin do?  Quite simply, he hit it out of the park.  He hit it a country mile.

The first half of the program was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt, but notably absent were Lisztian warhorses like the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, “Funerailles”, “Un Sospiro”, and the monumental B minor Sonata.  Instead, Hamelin favored us with three lesser-known works, and showed us a side of Liszt we seldom see, one that is deeply personal and startlingly profound.

First on the program was the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13.  Not as well known as many of Liszt’s rhapsodies, the 13th reminds us that not all gypsy tunes are brilliant, up-tempo dances.  The Andante was suffused with a vague melancholy, while in the concluding Vivace, Hamelin’s legendary technique was much in evidence, with fleet-fingered passagework alternating with fortissimo passages of great power.

This was followed by Liszt’s “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” (The Blessing of God in Solitude).  The opening to this piece is perhaps the most reflective thing Liszt ever wrote, and Hamelin made it a very personal statement.  The second movement is simplicity itself, and in Hamelin’s hands, nothing was rushed.  He gave the music space to breathe, and in so doing, let it speak to us.  The third movement is as profound as anything in Liszt.  It is Liszt looking deep within himself.  I’ve never heard anything like it.

The last piece on the first half was Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H.  This is not an attempt to compose in the style of Bach, but rather an homage to him, based on the four notes that correspond to the letters of Bach’s name.  We learn from flagmusic.com that,

In the German system of key spellings, the lettering runs from A through H, rather than A through G.  Our B-flat is the German B, and B is denoted H.  This allows one to spell the name B-A-C-H on the keys, thus:”

This is a very dark piece.  Where the “Bénédiction” is the ultimate in introspective reflection, and might be described as a soul at peace, this is an impassioned cry in which we seem to have a soul in torment.  At its climax, Hamelin created a volume of sound such as I have never before heard from a piano.  The effect was overwhelming.  At its conclusion, the audience gave Hamelin a standing ovation, even though it was just the end of the first half of the program.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

The first piece after the intermission was the Sonata No. 4 by Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962), whose music was entirely unknown to me prior to this recital.  Feinberg has been called a musical heir to Scriabin, and like much of Scriabin’s music, this sonata is mysterious, dark, and impassioned.  From the first notes, it created such tension and suspense that I almost felt the need to hold my breath.

Throughout his career, Hamelin has made it a point to program and record lesser-known works.  Several years ago, he introduced me to Medtner, and now to Feinberg, so I’m particularly grateful for his dedication to lesser known composers.  He’s planning to record the first six of Feinberg’s twelve piano sonatas, and I’m eagerly looking forward to that release.

Next on the program was Debussy’s Images, Book I.  No one could paint pictures with music like Debussy, or coax such lovely sounds from the piano.  The first two pieces, Reflets dans l’eau and Hommage à Rameau, felt very improvisational.  Hamelin allowed these pieces to whisper to the audience in a way that held us in rapt attention throughout.  By contrast, the third piece, Mouvement, was a welcome expression of shared joy.

The final work on the program was Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Wine, Women, and Song after Johann Strauss.  This kind of pianistic tour de force is meat and potatoes for Hamelin, and despite its complexity and technical difficulties, offered the audience some delightfully tuneful interludes.

This was a recital one might wish would go on and on into the night, but as Chaucer reminds us, “All good things must come to an end.”  Hamelin gave us two encores.  The first was Godowsky’s “The Gardens of Buitenzorg” from the Java Suite, and the second was one of Hamelin’s own compositions, a toccata based on the old French song, “L’homme armé”, which he wrote for the recently concluded Van Cliburn Competition.

Hamelin does so many things well, he is impossible to classify.  Just when you think he’s a Liszt specialist, he plays Debussy like no one else you’ve ever heard.  Then he plays a Strauss waltz in an absolutely captivating manner.  If you have the chance to hear him in person, you mustn’t let it pass you by.  You will almost certainly hear something new, and you will without a doubt hear piano playing that you will never forget.

As for me, this was the second time I’ve heard Hamelin in person.  The first was in 2010 when I heard him play Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  This was, however, the first time I’ve heard him in recital, which is the best way to appreciate the range of his talent.

I hope it won’t be the last.

Derrick Robinson

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Published in: on September 30, 2017 at 10:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Beethoven: Piano Trio Op. 97 “Archduke” The Istomin/Stern/Rose Trio

Ludwig van Beethoven

Of the seven trios that Beethoven wrote for piano, violin, and cello, it is the seventh, the “Archduke”, that is the best known.  Composer and author Kathy Henkel, who writes regularly for the LA Philharmonic web­site, wrote a short article about the “Archduke”, which you can read here in its entirely.  Here is a brief excerpt:

It was in the summertime of 1810 that Beethoven began sketching what would become his final and finest piano trio.  Earlier that year, he had harbored serious thoughts of marrying his doctor’s lovely 18-year-old niece, Therese Malfatti.  When his hopes were dashed, the composer slunk off to Baden for a few months, where he nursed his wounds and distracted himself by jotting down plans for a string quartet and a piano trio.  On his return to Vienna in October, he completed the quartet – his striking Op. 95, “Serioso.”  The piano trio itself was written in a flurry of inspiration from March 3 to 26 the following year.  It completed a decade of awesome creativity which had begun with the “Eroica” Symphony.  Coming at the end of this so-called “heroic” decade, the “Archduke” Trio represented the full bloom and the crowning achievement of the composer’s Middle Period.  It is music of sweeping grandeur for a trio of virtuosos.

Indeed, it was just such a trio of virtuosos – Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Rose – who joined forces in 1961 to form the Istomin/Stern/Rose Trio, featured in the video below.  All three enjoyed long and distinguished careers as solo artists.  Their collaboration would continue for 23 years – until the death of Leonard Rose in 1984 – and they received a Grammy Award in 1971 for their recording of the complete Beethoven piano trios.

The noted Beethoven authority John Suchet has written movingly about the premiere of the “Archduke” trio:

The most beautiful of all Beethoven’s Piano Trios, and one that holds a poignant place in his life.  At its first public performance Beethoven insisted on playing the piano part, although his hearing was now (1814) seriously defective.  The composer and violinist Louis Spohr reported:

It was not a good performance.  In the first place the piano was badly out of tune, which was of little concern to Beethoven because he could not hear it.  Secondly, on account of his deafness, there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.  In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys till the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted, so that the music was unintelligible.  I was deeply saddened at so harsh a fate.  It is a great misfor­tune for anyone to be deaf, but how can a musician endure it without giving way to despair?  From now on Beethoven’s continual melancholy was no longer a riddle to me.

Beethoven knew it too.  Apart from one more performance a few weeks later, he never performed in public again.  Listen to the glorious slow movement [at 21:15 in the video below] of the Archduke Trio knowing that, and it will carry a whole new meaning.

The tempo indications of the four movements, and their start times in the video below, are as follows:

1. Allegro moderato – 0:00
2. Scherzo (Allegro) – 13:52
3. Andante cantabile ma però con moto – 21:15
4. Allegro moderato – 34:26

Published in: on August 31, 2017 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Albéniz: Iberia – Recorded Live in Concert by Alicia de Larrocha

Isaac Albéniz

On March 2, 1980, a remarkable recital took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall.  The pianist was Alicia de Larrocha (1923-2009), and the program consisted entirely of music by Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909): the twelve pieces of the Iberia suite and, as an encore, Navarra.  Just how remarkable this program was can be gathered from remarks about Iberia made by Harold Schonberg in his 1963 book, The Great Pianists:

In the last three years of his life [Albéniz] set to work on a series of complicated piano pieces, and with them was assured of immortality.  They were published in four books under the title of Iberia.

Nothing in Albéniz’ previous work had led anybody to expect from him music of this complexity, muscularity and difficulty.  His friend, the fine French pianist Blanche Selva, read the manuscript and was appalled.  “It is unplayable,” she said – a remark echoed by many later pianists who have struggled with Triana, Fête-Dieu à Seville and El Puerto.  Albéniz reassured Selva.  “You will play it,” he said.  She eventually did.  But those twelve pieces in Iberia are reserved only for superior pianists.

In the same book, Schonberg also writes, albeit briefly, about Alicia de Larrocha:

The most impressive Spanish pianist to have emerged after the war is Alicia de Larrocha, a tiny woman who tosses off things like the Albéniz Iberia and Granados Goyescas as though they were basic Czerny.

Though this is an obvious case of poetic license – nobody tosses off Iberia and Goyescas as though they were basic Czerny – it’s clear that Alicia de Larrocha had an exceptional technique, even in an age in which the exceptional seems to have become the rule.

Her London recital was reviewed by Frank Barker of The Guardian, who wrote of it as follows:

It was a rare treat to have a piano recital devoted to Iberia in its entirety, all 12 of the masterly impressions of Spanish scenes with which Albéniz finally proved himself a composer of real international stature.  Not only did he prompt Debussy to declare that “music has never achieved such diversified and colourful impressions”; he also exploited the expressive potential of the piano as delicately yet surely as did Chopin in his different time and place.

Alicia de Larrocha, one of the few great pianists of our time who carries thoroughly professional dedication to the composer to the point of self-effacement, proved herself the ideal interpreter.

She adjusted with deceptive artistic ease to the essential spirit of each pianistic impression, gently dreamy in the opening Evocation, powerful in the pealing of bells during the Corpus Christi procession in Seville [Fête-Dieu à Seville], vibrantly brooding in El Albaicin, arguably the most evocative of all these impressions and one which will make anyone who has penetrated the gypsy quarter of Granada hold his breath.

Alicia de Larrocha’s unfailingly poetic realisation of each individual scene merits a whole page of praise, but let me just salute her for bringing Iberia to life in a performance to be cherished.

The recital was also reviewed by Joan Chissell, who wrote, “Since all 12 pieces were equally evocative (and incidentally all were played from memory with quite astonishing accuracy) it seems almost invidious to pick out one rather than another.”  Just the same, I want to mention a few of my favorite movements – and moments – from this magnificent work.  I have loved the first movement, Evocación, almost from the first time I heard it.  It has always felt to me like an invitation – a welcome – to the suite as a whole, and evokes in me feelings of sadness, perhaps, or some undefinable melancholy.  El Puerto, on the other hand, is a cheerful, extroverted companion to the introspective Evocación.  Finally, in Fête-dieu à Seville, we have one of my favorite passages in the entire work, from 12:20 to 14:16 in the attached video, which conveys to me a peace that is almost otherworldly.

Albéniz’ great achievement in Iberia, it seems to me, was to create a suite of pieces so evocative of Spain that, after listening to it, you feel as though you’ve been there.

This recital is almost an hour and a half long, but there’s no need to listen to it all in one sitting.  If time is an issue, you can listen to Iberia one book at a time.  The titles of the twelve movements, and their start times in the attached video, are as follows:

Book I                                       Book III
Evocación 0:07                       El Albaicín 41:40
El Puerto 5:42                         El Polo 48:54
Fête-dieu à Seville 9:55         Lavapiés 56:00

Book II                                      Book IV
Rondeña 19:11                         Málaga 1:03:00
Almería 26:32                         Jerez 1:07:53
Triana 36:14                            Eritaña 1:17:14

Encore: Navarra 1:22:59

 

Published in: on July 31, 2017 at 8:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Schubert: Wanderer Fantasy in C major Pianist – Evgeny Kissin

Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder (Click to enlarge.)

This month I am excited to present one of the landmarks of the piano repertoire, Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy.  I was introduced to the Wanderer many years ago, in a recording by Sviatoslav Richter for Angel Records, where it is paired with the Sonata in A major, D 664.  I still have that record, and have reproduced here a portion of the liner notes by Robin Golding.

The “WANDERER” FANTASY – so called because it uses, in its slow movement, the tune of Schubert’s own song of that name – occupies a unique position in Schubert’s work, and indeed in musical history, in using a “motto” theme to link its separate movements.  It was, of course, this same device that Liszt was to develop in his concertos and in the B minor Sonata, and from which Wagner was to evolve the principle of the Leitmotif.  No wonder that Liszt was sufficiently interested in this Fantasy (and, no doubt, by the patently “orchestral” quality of much of the piano writing) to make an arrangement of it as a concerto for piano and orchestra.  Schubert’s original dates from November 1822, a few days after he began writing out the full score of the “Unfinished” Symphony.

As we have seen, the Wanderer tune appears in full in the C sharp minor Adagio, where it is the subject of seven continuous (and often very brilliant) variations.  It is the theme’s characteristic hammering rhythm that really binds the other movements together.  The opening Allegro is permeated by it; formally the movement is more like a Rondo than a regular sonata-form structure, the explosive discussion of the principal theme twice giving way to more lyrical episodes deriving from it.  After the Adagio comes a dynamic Scherzo in A flat in which the rhythmic figure is transformed into triple time, with a song-like Trio in D flat whose material is derived from the first movement’s second episode.  The Finale begins fugally, with the theme once more in common time, but before long develops into a free and highly virtuosic peroration on the Wanderer tune.  Schubert himself was no great virtuoso at the keyboard, and it is said that he once stopped playing in the middle of the last movement and exclaimed: “Let the devil play it!”

As Golding mentions, it is Schubert’s own song, “Der Wanderer”, that gives its name to this piece and that serves as the theme of the Adagio section, which begins at 6:12 in the video below.  The interested reader can hear the song in its original version by clicking here.

In this video, we hear a stunning performance by a young Evgeny Kissin.  The tempo markings of the four movements, and their start times, are as follows:

I.  Allegro con Fuoco – 0:01
II.  Adagio – 6:12
III.  Presto – 13:41
IV.  Allegro – 18:10

I invite you now to embark on a journey through strange and wonderful lands, and to share Schubert’s joy as, at 19:20 or so (maybe not until 19:50), his Wanderer reaches his destination.

Published in: on June 30, 2017 at 5:09 pm  Comments (1)  
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Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man

“When I speak of the gifted listener, I am thinking of the nonmusician primarily, of the listener who intends to retain his amateur status.  It is the thought of just such a listener that excites the composer in me.”

– Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Of all of Aaron Copland’s compositions, Fanfare for the Common Man is almost certainly the one most people would recognize.  Once heard, it is impossible to forget.  In his autobiography, Copland 1900 Through 1942 (co-authored by Vivian Perlis), Copland writes as follows about the genesis of this uncommon work:

Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, had written to me at the end of August [1942] about an idea he wanted to put into action for the 1942-43 concert season.  During World War I he had asked British composers for a fanfare to begin each orchestral concert.  It had been so successful that he thought to repeat the procedure in World War II with American composers.

In fact, Goossens went on to request fanfares from 17 composers, including Walter Piston, Darius Milhaud, and Virgil Thomson, and even wrote one himself, but Copland’s is the only one that has remained in the active repertoire.

Additional information about this piece is provided on the Library of Congress website:

“Fanfare for the Common Man” was certainly Copland’s best known concert opener… Goossens, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, originally had in mind a fanfare “… for Soldiers, or for Airmen or Sailors” and planned to open his 1942 concert season with it.

Aaron Copland later wrote, “The challenge was to compose a traditional fanfare, direct and powerful, yet with a contemporary sound.”  To the ultimate delight of audiences Copland managed to weave musical complexity with popular style.  He worked slowly and deliberately, however, and the piece was not ready until a full month after the proposed premier.

To Goossens’ surprise Copland titled the piece “Fanfare for the Common Man” (although his sketches show he also experimented with other titles such as “Fanfare for a Solemn Ceremony” and “Fanfare for Four Freedoms”).  Fortunately Goossens loved the work, despite his puzzlement over the title, and decided with Copland to preview it on March 12, 1943.  As income taxes were to be paid on March 15 that year, they both felt it was an opportune moment to honor the common man.  Copland later wrote, “Since that occasion, ‘Fanfare’ has been played by many and varied ensembles, ranging from the U.S. Air Force Band to the popular Emerson, Lake, and Palmer group… I confess that I prefer ‘Fanfare’ in the original version, and I later used it in the final movement of my Third Symphony.”

I can well understand Goossens’ puzzlement over Copland’s title.  Far from suggesting a common man, this fanfare embodies all the nobility and majesty that we might expect in a fanfare for a king, an emperor, or some other august personage.  I can easily imagine Copland wracking his brain for the title that best suited his music, and that he decided on “Fanfare for the Common Man” because, though happy to honor the common soldier, sail0r, and airman, he did not want to give his fanfare a title that might be seen as glorifying war.

In this video, we hear the New York Philharmonic conducted by James Levine in a live performance at Carnegie Hall.  Two things stand out as especially noteworthy about this performance.  The first is the extraordinary unison of the four trumpets at the beginning of the piece.  Except for the volume of their sound, we might easily imagine that we are hearing not four trumpets, but one.  The second is the concentration and precision of the timpanist, Roland Kohloff, principal timpanist of the New York Philharmonic for 32 years.  In one of the comments that accompany the YouTube video of this performance, Kohloff’s daughter, Jami Grassi, wrote the following tribute to her father:

So, maybe I dare to say, or not, the timpanist is my father, Roland Kohloff.  He never cared whether there was a camera on him or not, performing for one person or a million.  He just loved to play music.  Student of Saul Goodman’s, my uncle.  Musicians who play from and with heart make expressions with their faces and their bodies, conductors included.  All I hear when I listen to this is the beauty of each individual’s musicianship collectively playing together in this beautiful moment.  Most of these musicians, as my father, are no longer on this earth, but they leave a legacy through their perfor-
mance and with their families who love them.  For me, this is simply watching my papa play with his heart and his soul and I get to watch this and remember him forever.  I Love This.

Published in: on May 29, 2017 at 7:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Book Review: The Cat Who Went to Heaven

The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Scholastic, Inc. 1987

I’ve always liked stories that begin, “Once upon a time.”  Those four simple words impart a timeless quality to the narrative that follows, and all by themselves, do a commendable job of setting the mood for the rest of the story.  I like them also because they evoke memories of my early childhood, when almost every story I heard began that way.  In any case, that’s the way The Cat Who Went to Heaven begins:

Once upon a time, far away in Japan, a poor young artist sat alone in his little house, waiting for his dinner.  His housekeeper had gone to market, and he sat sighing to think of all the things he wished she would bring home.  He expected her to hurry in at any minute, bowing and opening her little basket to show him how wisely she had spent their few pennies.  He heard her step, and jumped up.  He was very hungry!

But the housekeeper lingered by the door, and the basket stayed shut.

“Come,” he cried, “what is in that basket?”

What is in the basket?  Perhaps a few of the rice cakes so beloved by the artist, or little cakes filled with sweet bean jelly?  No, it is a cat that the housekeeper bought from a fisherman in the market.  The artist is angry at first about the new arrival, but grudgingly agrees to keep her:

“Let us see the creature,” he said, pretending he scarcely cared whether he saw it or not.

So the old woman put down the basket and opened the lid.  Nothing happened for a moment.  Then a round, pretty, white head came slowly above the bamboo, and two big yellow eyes looked about the room, and a little white paw appeared on the rim.  Suddenly, without moving the basket at all, a little white cat jumped out on the mats, and stood there as a person might who scarcely knew if she were welcome.  Now that the cat was out of the basket, the artist saw that she had yellow and black spots on her sides, a little tail like a rabbit’s, and that she did everything daintily.

“Oh, a three-colored cat,” said the artist.  “Why didn’t you say so from the beginning?  They are very lucky, I understand.

Was it just luck that brought the cat into their lives, or was it something else, perhaps the kind heart of the housekeeper?  Whatever it was, the artist decides she may stay, and at the housekeeper’s suggestion, they name her Good Fortune.

Initially, the artist merely tolerates her presence in his house…

But one day he was forced to admit that Good Fortune was not like other cats.  He was sitting in his especial room watching sparrows fly in and out of the hydrangea bushes outside, when he saw Good Fortune leap from a shadow and catch a bird.  In a second the brown wings, the black-capped head, the legs like briers, the frightened eyes, were between her paws.  The artist would have clapped his hands and tried to scare her away, but before he had time to make the least move, he saw Good Fortune hesitate and then slowly, slowly, lift first one white paw and then another from the sparrow.  Unhurt, in a loud whir of wings, the bird flew away.

“What mercy!” cried the artist, and the tears came into his eyes.  Well he knew his cat must be hungry and well he knew what hunger felt like.  “I am ashamed when I think that I called such a cat a goblin,” he thought.  “Why, she is more virtuous than a priest.”

It was just then, at that very moment, that the old housekeeper appeared, trying hard to hide her excitement.

“Master!” she said as soon as she could find words.  “Master!  The head priest from the temple himself is here in the next room and wishes to see you.  What, oh what, do you think His Honor has come here for?”

It turns out that the head priest has come to commission a painting of the death of Buddha to hang in the temple, a commission that would mean a complete reversal in the fortunes of the artist, for as the priest remarks, “What the temple approves becomes the fashion in the town.”  The next day, the artist undertakes to begin the painting, but before he sets out his silk, ink, and water, he first meditates on the Buddha.  He realizes that “…he must strive to understand the Buddha before he could paint him.”  When he has finished painting the Buddha, he begins to meditate on all the animals he has yet to paint, animals that came to honor the Buddha on his deathbed: the snail, the elephant, the horse, the swan, the water buffalo, the dog, the deer, the monkey, and the tiger.  While he is reflecting upon them…

Good Fortune came out from his shadow.  When she saw the tiger she trembled all over, from her thistledown whiskers to her little tail, and she looked at the artist.

“If the tiger can come to bid farewell to Buddha,” she seemed to say, “surely the cat, who is little and often so gentle, may come, O master?  Surely, surely, you will next paint the cat among the animals who were blessed by the Holy One as he died?”

The artist was much distressed.

“Good Fortune,” he said, gently taking her into his arms. “I would gladly paint the cat if I could.  But all people know that cats, though lovely, are unusually proud and self-satisfied.  Alone among the animals, the cat refused to accept the teachings of Buddha.  She alone, of all creatures, was not blessed by him…”

The Cat Who Went to Heaven was the winner of the 1931 Newbery Medal for children’s literature, but it is one of those rare books – like Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia – that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike.  There are lessons to be learned from it by readers of all ages, not the sort of lesson we learn consciously, but longer lasting lessons that we absorb without knowing it, lessons learned by example.  It is, of course, a story about an artist, a housekeeper, and a cat, but it is a great deal more.  It is a story about sacrifice, compassion, and mercy.

Illustration by Lynd Ward (Click to enlarge.)

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 6:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lowell Liebermann: Gargoyles, Op. 29 Pianist – Yuja Wang

There is good and bad music of all kinds being written at all times, and the musical fascists that would impose their own stylistic prejudices on the public are the people who are striking a real blow to the health of our musical culture. – Lowell Liebermann

Lowell Liebermann (photo: Christian Steiner)

After attending the concert given by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang in Seattle last month, (you can read my review here) I spent some time exploring the many videos of Yuja Wang available online.  I discovered many I hadn’t seen before, and was especially taken with her performance of “Gargoyles” by Lowell Liebermann.  I had never heard of Liebermann, and was singularly happy to discover a contemporary composer whose music I really liked, an enthusiasm I think you will share after watching the video below.

The following biographical sketch of Liebermann and description of Gargoyles were written by Joseph Stevenson for allmusic.com.

Gargoyles is a colorful and engaging set of four piano pieces resembling concert etudes by one of America’s most promising young composers of its day.  He has since gone on to fulfill that promise.  Lowell Liebermann was born on George Washington’s birthday (February 22) in 1961 in New York City.  He began studying piano at eight and composition at 14, and received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the Juilliard School of Music.  His composition teachers included David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti.  He wrote this piano set two years after finishing his doctorate.  In the 1990s he went on to write acclaimed symphonies and concertos for such soloists as flutist James Galway and Stephen Hough.  He is among the generation of American composers who left the old twelve-tone system behind and rediscovered the vitality of an extended use of tonality, freely using all the chromatic notes but generally remaining in contact with a sense of tonal center.

As a longtime devotee of art and architecture, Liebermann joins many in being bemused by gargoyles, the representations of fantastic monsters that often embellish churches and other old buildings and are said to have been placed there to scare away evil spirits.  The title “Gargoyles” refers to the general mood of the set — which is eerie and mysterious throughout and often scary and threatening — but the individual pieces do not depict any particular real or imagined gargoyles.  The piano style is rather similar to that of Sergei Prokofiev, although the harmonies are a bit more densely chromatic.  Altogether the piece runs about ten minutes.

The first movement, Presto, is a devilish work at rapid speed with wide leaps, double notes, and quick, disorienting changes in touch and loudness.  The whole effect is unsettled.  The following Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato, is a very Romantic piece in mood (though the harmonies remain more modern), with repeated figures in the bass and a legato melody in octaves.  Even more flowing and beautiful is the third movement, Allegro moderato.  Here a melody is embedded in a flowing, wave-like figure that both hands share.  The finale is another movement at a flat-out tempo, Presto feroce.  It is ferocious, a taxing and grotesque dance in the venerable Italian tarantella rhythm.

Joseph Stevenson

When I first heard this piece, I was struck primarily by its technical demands, and by the seemingly effortless way in which Yuja Wang surmounts them.  There’s something almost nonchalant about her virtuosity.  (If I were a pianist, I might say, “unfair”.)  With each successive hearing, Gargoyles feels more unified to me, and I become aware of different aspects of its structure.  I’m looking forward to listening to more of Liebermann’s work, much of which is available on YouTube.

If you would like to know more about Lowell Liebermann, I encourage you to watch this interview with him, hosted by Zsolt Bognár for Living the Classical Life.  You may also want to read this fascinating essay from newmusicbox.org.  In it, Liebermann talks at length about his own music and influences, as well as the state of contemporary classical music.

The following video is taken from an April 2013 recital in Tokyo’s Toppan Hall.  The tempo markings and start times of the four movements are as follows:

0:18  I. Presto
2:00  II. Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato
4:24  III. Allegro moderato
6:45  IV. Presto feroce

Published in: on March 31, 2017 at 4:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Concert Review: Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall

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Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos at the post-concert reception, Feb. 10, 2017.

Earlier this month, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang gave their first joint appearance in Seattle in a recital that will long be remembered by those fortunate enough to attend.  Their recital happened to fall on Ms. Wang’s birthday, but it was the audience that received a present: a program of music that, while by no means esoteric, was certainly lesser known, and just as certain to expand and enrich the musical lives of everyone in attendance.

I had lingering reservations about attending this recital, reservations that had nothing to do with the program or with Leonidas Kavakos, whom I had heard perform with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2006, and whom I featured on this blog two years ago in a performance of the Korngold violin concerto.  My concerns were related solely to Yuja Wang, who, while she possesses a virtuoso technique, seems often in her programs to emphasize style over substance, and whose attire seems inevitably to distract the viewer from the music and overshadow her musicianship.  For an in-depth discussion of the style vs. substance dichotomy as it relates to Ms. Wang, I refer the reader to this article from the Sept. 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

My concerns about Ms. Wang’s attire vanished the moment she appeared on stage, wearing an elegant, floor-length, off-white gown that would have passed muster in even the most conservative of concert settings.  Relieved that I would be able to focus all my attention on the music, I settled back to enjoy the first piece on the program: the Violin Sonata by Leoš Janáček.  This is an exceptionally passionate work, one that both challenges and rewards the listener.  The second movement is especially tender, and was the high point of the sonata for me.  Mr. Kavakos and Ms. Wang clearly see themselves as servants of the music, and surely won many new friends for Janáček with this performance.

After the passion of the Janáček, I was grateful for the peaceful opening of Schubert’s Fantasie in C major.  In the playful second movement, Wang and Kavakos demonstrated ensemble playing of the highest order.  The song-like third movement reminded us once again of Schubert’s unsurpassed gift for melody, and filled the concert hall with the same spiritual ambiance one might feel in a cathedral.  Despite the diverse character of the four sections of the last movement, it felt unified from beginning to end, and the main theme of the Allegro vivace conveyed a surpassing joy.

The second half of the program began with Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor.  Composed in 1917, this sonata was Debussy’s final major work.  Unlike the other pieces on the program, all of which deserve a wider audience, this sonata has been a staple of the violinist’s repertoire from the beginning.  When Ms. Wang played the two soft chords with which it begins, and which carried beautifully all the way to my seat in the third tier, I was struck at once with the thought, “What a touch!”  Later, reflecting on the performance as a whole, I noted, “Just wonderful playing!”

The final work on the program was Bartok’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor.  This sonata was composed in 1921, and I cannot hear it except as a reaction to the horrors of World War I.  The first movement, marked allegro appassionato, burns white-hot from the very first notes.  Both players need a huge technique to carry off this piece.  The second movement, adagio, conveys utter desolation.  All is lost.  Kavakos and Wang adopted a more relaxed tempo in this movement than one sometimes hears, which added to the sense of desolation.  The third movement, marked allegro, is simply breathtaking: a 19th century friska in 20th century garb, building to an overpowering climax as it speeds to the finish.

The effect was overwhelming.  The audience loved it, and gave Kavakos and Wang an enthusiastic standing ovation.  In return, they gave us one encore, the graceful Andantino from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A Major, D. 574, which, coming after the Bartok, may have been as necessary (for audience and performers alike) as cooling out a horse after a race.

All in all, it was an extraordinary recital, notable both for the artistry of the performers and the seriousness of the program.  There were no Kreisler transcriptions, no Carmen Fantasy.  Even the encore was not your typical crowd-pleaser.  There were no lollipops anywhere.  Instead, Kavakos and Wang gave us a four-course feast for the musical soul.  I look forward to their next appearance here.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 11:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor Pianist – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

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Frédéric Chopin

In 1963, when I was beginning to explore the world of classical music, there was no internet and, obviously, no YouTube.  CD’s were still twenty years in the future.  Long-playing, vinyl records were our primary means of discovering new music, and there was a wealth of them for us to choose from.  I well remember browsing through my local record store searching for the one record (perhaps two) that insisted on going home with me, and the sense of anticipation with which I placed it on the family turntable for the first time.

I was introduced to Chopin’s second piano sonata in just this way, through Vladimir Horowitz’ 1962 recording for Columbia Records, which also includes works by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt.  In the liner notes to that recording, Thomas Frost quotes Horowitz as follows:

“All these pieces have been with me a long time.  The Chopin sonata I played first in ’22 or ’23.  It’s been a good friend throughout my career.  You know the story they tell – Chopin was asked if the finale was a ‘light wind over the grave’ and he said, ‘No, just gossiping between two hands.’  He was a moody man, Chopin.  But I think this idea of a final sigh or a ghostly wind over the grave is a good one.  Perhaps he meant that.”

In the same liner notes, Neville Cardus elaborates on the Chopin sonata as follows:

Schumann’s often-quoted remark about the B-flat Minor Sonata – “Chopin has simply bound together four of his most reckless children” – is taken to task by most modern critics, who feel that the work, despite its unclassical form, is a completely logical entity.  In his work on Chopin, Herbert Weinstock has written, “I have heard the sonata played so that it sounded like four separate pieces; the fault was the pianist’s… But I have heard it played…with the complete, overall, four-movement structural and aesthetic-emotional unity of a Mozart piano concerto or Beethoven piano sonata… Calling the B-flat Minor a sonata was neither caprice nor jest; it is a sonata by Chopin.”  Mr. Weinstock further feels that, “had Chopin written little else, it would entitle him to a position as peer of the greatest artistic creators.”

I was introduced to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) in the same way, through his 1957 recording for Angel Records of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4.  Harold Schonberg, in The Great Pianists (1963), has this to say about Michelangeli:

If there is an Italian school, it is represented by the puzzling and redoubtable figure of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the most important Italian pianist after Busoni (if Busoni be considered Italian).  Purely as a playing machine, Michelangeli is a legend to his colleagues, who put him in the Horowitz class as a super-virtuoso.  Some of his playing is startling in its sheer pianistic polish and perfection.  His fingers can no more hit a wrong note or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired.  In addition he is a complete master of tonal application, as evidenced in his performance of Gaspard de la Nuit.  By any standards this is one of the triumphs of modern pianism…

Fortunately for all of us, Michelangeli’s artistry is well represented on YouTube, in both video and audio-only clips.  The interested reader will find not only his performances of the Ravel and Rachmaninoff concertos that captivated me, and the Gaspard mentioned by Schonberg, but also much by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, and many others.

The following video is taken from a 1962 documentary devoted to Michelangeli that includes nearly two hours of Chopin’s music.  The four movements of this sonata, and their start times in the video, are as follows:

I. Grave; Doppio movimento – 0:30
II. Scherzo – 8:42
III. Marche funèbre; Lento – 16:13
IV. Presto – 25:43

Published in: on January 31, 2017 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Pianist – Maria João Pires

Mozart in 1777, the year this concerto was composed, by an unknown artist.

Mozart in 1777, the year this concerto was composed, by an unknown artist.

Three months ago, in my post of September 30, I linked to a video of pianist Maria João Pires expecting to play one Mozart concerto, only to discover that the conductor had a completely different one in mind.  That Ms. Pires was able to recover from the shock and play the second concerto – without the score – speaks volumes about her memory, and her presence of mind as well.

Having listened to her magnificent performance of the “surprise” concerto, I now want to present Ms. Pires performing the concerto she was expecting to play that day: Mozart’s Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, now called the “Jenamy”.  But first, a word about its subtitle, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The work has long been known as the Jeunehomme Concerto. [In fact, that’s how I referred to it in September. – DR]  Théodore de Wyzéwa and Georges de Saint-Foix claimed that Mozart wrote the piece for a French pianist ‘Jeunehomme’ visiting Salzburg.  This name is however incorrect; in 2004 Michael Lorenz demonstrated that the name was actually Victoire Jenamy (1749–1812), a daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, a dancer who was one of Mozart’s friends.  Mozart had made Victoire Jenamy’s acquaintance during his stay in Vienna in 1773.

The interested reader will find much more information online from Michael Lorenz about discovering the correct subtitle for this concerto, but more interesting to me is what he has to say about the piece itself:

Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 271 “Jenamy” can be described as a miracle of musical originality.  In the mastership of its orchestration, its stupendous innovative energy and its effect, despite limited instrumental means, this piece has absolutely no precedent.  It is Mozart’s first great composition, “his Eroica” as Alfred Einstein put it, “which he later would match, but never surpass.”

I can add little to that, except to say that this concerto is a joy from beginning to end.  Listening to it, I am struck over and over by the charm and elegance of the first movement, the surpassing tenderness of the second, and the jaunty exuberance of the third, which seems to go on and on in an ecstasy of imagination.  I’m especially grateful for the glorious sound in the attached video, in which John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

The three movements of the concerto, and their start times in the video, are as follows:

1. Allegro – 0:09
2. Andantino – 10:43
3. Rondo (Presto); Menuetto (Cantabile) – 22:06

Published in: on December 31, 2016 at 12:25 pm  Comments (2)  
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