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

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Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 11:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Béla Bartók: Piano Sonata Sz. 80 (1926) Pianist – Zoltán Kocsis

Béla Bartók by Maxine Frost

Béla Bartók by Maxine Frost

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945.  He composed his lone piano sonata in 1926, a banner year for Bartók which also saw the composition of his Out of Doors suite, Nine Little Pieces, and First Piano Concerto.  Bartók himself gave the first performance of his sonata in Budapest in December 1926, and it has since become a staple of the pianist’s repertoire.

I was introduced to Bartók’s sonata by my friend, pianist Andrew Rangell, in the high and far-off times when we both were students at the University of Colorado.  Andy owned a recording of István Nádas, one of Bartok’s countrymen, playing this and three other 20th century sonatas, and I was immediately captivated by the excitement and power of the piece.

Andy has gone on to forge a long and distinguished career for himself as a performer and recording artist, and in 2013 he released his own recording of this work on the Steinway & Sons label.  The CD is entitled “A Folk Song Runs Through It”, and features works of Janáček, Kodály, and Bartók.  I have reproduced below the liner notes relating to the Bartók sonata.

Bartók’s only sonata for piano is, like the two violin-piano sonatas of several years earlier, a radical departure from his overtly folk-based pieces of the previous decade.  The opening movement is cast clearly in sonata-allegro form.  It is dominated by machine-like energy, percussive, propulsive, filled with irregular phrases and brutal punctuations.  The themes of the exposition can feel overpowering, but subtle distinctions are certainly present: the second theme group is more relaxed and more charming than the insistent opening theme; the closing theme is more festive.  Wit animates the short development, and the truncated sotto voce recapitulation is wonderfully understated.  A stretto variation of the opening theme leads to the headlong coda and its explosive closing glissando.

The second movement, in ternary form, opens with a frozen, grief-stricken theme: a single pitch, and a single chord – both repeated insistently in a ritual of alternation.  A second theme, of plangent, widely-spaced chords, introduces a four-note diatonic scale.  Part A develops both themes in a bare polyphonic texture.  Part B is a single sustained event: a slow-growing, chromatic, and chordal crescendo over a pedal-tone, which lends great power to the return of the opening material, now altered and foreshortened.  At the end, the lamenting single note of the opening leads to an abrupt and inconclusive closing chord, a poignant, enigmatic halt.

The finale opens with an unequivocal burst of folk dance, a theme which will return often, with marvelous decorations including the suggested twitterings of a bird in variations 5 and 7.  Interruptions cleverly dramatize each new iteration of the theme.  Unlike the first movement juggernaut, this movement is filled with capricious shifts of tempo.  A final variant of the theme reminds this listener of “Good King Wenceslas” and builds to a brief coda: brisk and precipitous!

Notes by Andrew Rangell

This video features Zoltán Kocsis (pronounced KO-cheesh), yet another Hungarian, in a performance at La Roque d’Anthéron in 2002.  If this is the first time you’ve heard this sonata, and if it should happen to seem unduly dissonant or disjointed – or any other ‘dis’ for that matter – I hope you will listen again.  You can take my word for it: after just two or three hearings, it will begin to make the most compelling kind of sense.

My thanks to the multi-talented Maxine Frost for the caricature of Bartók.  You can see more of Maxine’s artwork by clicking here.

Published in: on September 30, 2015 at 8:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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Bela Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 1 (1926) Pianist – Maurizio Pollini

Bela Bartók

Bela Bartók

Once the door to the world of great music had opened for me, Bela Bartók (1881-1945) was one of the first composers to excite my enthusiasm. I was a high school sophomore when my friend Andy Rangell introduced me to Bartók’s “Six Romanian Folk Dances” – three of which I later learned to play – and it wasn’t long before I had purchased, or borrowed from the public library, recordings of all three of his piano concertos, the two violin concertos, the Concerto for Orchestra, the viola concerto, the six string quartets… and I had only begun to explore the world of Bartók’s music.

A recording of Bartók’s First Piano Concerto was one of my very first records: a 1963 monaural Columbia LP (Does anyone else remember “monaural”?) featuring pianist Rudolph Serkin with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Szell.  The liner notes to that album include this brief description of the concerto’s composition, premiere, and critical reception:

Bartók’s First Piano Concerto is not a product of his youth but of his maturity, having been composed in 1926 when he was forty-five years old.  The first performance took place the following year in Frankfurt, with Bartók as soloist and Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the orchestra.  The work was heard in New York in 1928, and the review [by Henrietta Strauss] in The Nation voiced an unfavorable opinion which is still the common one: “There were broken bits of themes hammered out on the piano and answered by equally angry blasts of wind instruments.  The only sustained motive is that of bitterness, and the sum total is unmitigated ugliness.”

“Unmitigated ugliness.”  How would you like to be remembered for that little bit of wisdom?  No one who has listened to this concerto even twice would ever use those words to describe it.

I cannot understand the need some critics seem to feel to savage works and/or performances they don’t like.  Is it simply prejudice against something that doesn’t conform to what they know and understand?  Do they feel that, in order to be accepted as an authority, they have to speak in such unforgiving absolutes?  Why does something new and different evoke their hostility and scorn, rather than excite their curiosity?

I’m reminded of an observation by Sergei Prokofiev, quoted by Harold Schonberg in The Great Pianists:

I wandered through the enormous park in the middle of New York and, looking at the skyscrapers bordering it, I thought with fury of the wonderful American orchestras that cared nothing for my music; of the critics who were repeating for the hundredth time, “Beethoven is a great composer,” while balking violently at new works; of the managers who arranged long tours for artists playing the same hackneyed programs fifty times over.

How much more valuable would the critics’ contribution be if, instead of tearing down what they don’t understand, they made some effort to illuminate it, as Phillip Huscher does here in program notes he wrote for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

Bartók once remarked that the First Piano Concerto is in E minor, but for him a key, like a piano keyboard, was merely a point of departure for rich adventure.  Actually, Bartók uses key signatures here for the last time in a large work (Schoenberg had already given them up for good some twenty years before), but their presence is largely superfluous.  The first movement’s careful sonata form, too, simply provides the framework from which Bartók can strike out on his own.  The entire movement is breathlessly paced and, despite the appearance of frequent meter changes on the page, what one hears, rather than constantly shifting beats, is the larger overriding drive to the end.

The second movement is a conversation between piano and percussion in which the piano gradually asserts its rightful place as part of the percussion team.  (This highly original music is a precursor of the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion.)  At its center is a contrapuntal weaving of woodwind lines in four different keys at once over a stubborn piano ostinato.  The finale, which begins without a break, is bold and aggressive.  It’s sometimes difficult to reconcile this tough and powerful music with the man who wrote and played it himself, for Bartók was a pale and sickly man all his life.  But the music on the page clearly reflects the inner strength that shone from his piercing eyes.

This video features the renowned Italian pianist, Maurizio Pollini, in a brilliant performance from 2001 with the Orchestre de Paris conducted by the estimable Pierre Boulez.

Published in: on November 29, 2014 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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