Thursday, October 5, 2017

Notable New Recordings

In spite of the great proliferation of music competitions in the last several decades, the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw continues to occupy a special place in the music world, not only for its high standards, but also for how it has launched the careers of some of today’s major artists.

This season, Vancouver audiences have the unique opportunity to enjoy the artistry of two laureates from that very competition - Rafał Blechacz, gold medalist of the 2005 competition, and Cho Seong-Jin, freshly minted gold medalist of the 2015 edition.

Coincidentally, both artists have released new album on the prestigious Deutsche Grammaphon label this year, with vastly different repertoire, which makes for very interesting listening experiences.

Since winning the sought-after prize in Warsaw, Blechacz has maintained a relatively low profile, playing concerts but constantly exploring repertoire other than works of Chopin. Blechacz seems to have developed a reputation for being a thinking man’s pianist, always giving his audience thoughtful interpretations without falling into the trap of pedantry. The present album was recorded after a lengthy sabbatical where he completed his doctorate in philosophy with emphasis in aesthetics and the philosophy of music.

It is still too early to tell how the musical life of Cho Seong-Jin will turn out. So far, the signs are promising. In an interview, Cho said that he is “not interested in fame”, but rather to become an artist and to explore music. In spite of his near rock star status in his native South Korea, he seems to have remained quite grounded, focusing only on his music making. He has not endorsed any high-end wristwatches, Swedish stereo systems, or high fashion. And in spite of his young age, he is already in possession of a large repertoire as well as an acute musical sensibility.

Each of the two artists’ albums focuses on a single composer. Blechacz focuses on the music of J. S. Bach, and Cho, not surprisingly, gives us an entire album of Chopin. In his first studio album, Cho plays the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 as well as the four Ballades. In the concerto, Cho appears not to try to “milk” the beauty of the many beautiful melodies, but allows the music to speak for itself. In the concerto, he seems to understate many of the dramatic possibilities, especially in the outer movements. Which is not to say that there aren’t exciting moments. The cross hand passages leading up to the end of the first movement is positively exhilarating. And in the third movement, Cho really captures the character of the Krakowiak, and the music really dances and sparks under his fingers. In the gorgeous slow movement, Cho seems to be looking for the inner beauties within the score, and he brings out all the incredibly ravishing character of the music, directly and simply.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra do more than yeoman’s work in the concerto. Noseda lavishes much attention to the details within the orchestral tuttis, and very sensitively supports Cho in the many solo passages. Conductors like Noseda, and Carlo Maria Giulini in his recordings of the Chopin concerti with Krystian Zimerman, show us the genius and beauty behind Chopin’s orchestral writing.

There are probably no more formidable pianistic and musical challenges than the four Ballades of Chopin. To my ears, Cho is even more impressive with these monumental solo works. In each Ballade, he manages to create the impression of a huge arch from beginning to end, connecting each episode with a logic and sense of direction that makes each Ballade sound like an organic whole - remarkable achievement for so young an artist. He has an uncanny sense of pacing and timing, and manages to avoid the trap (one that stumps many great pianists) of making the music sound episodic. Even the much-played Ballade No. 1 in G minor sounds fresh and exciting under his hands. I especially loved the opening of the Ballade No. 2 in F major, where he voices the chords of the chorale just magnificently, and subtly brining out the many inner voices. The Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major comes off with a beguiling and quicksilver lightness. And in the monumental and masterful Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Cho brings a sweeping quality to the music, and his pianism and interpretation are simply impregnable.

No less enjoyable is Rafał Blechacz’s beautifully recorded and engineered Bach recording. I simply love his interpretation of the composer’s justly popular Italian Concerto, BWV 971, where he really highlights the concerto grosso characteristics of the work, effectively contrasting the different levels of sound between the ripieno and the concertino. Moreover, there is a palpable sense of forward propulsion in the outer movements. In the slow movement, Blechacz deftly balances the horizontal and the vertical, not sacrificing one for the other.

In his interpretation of the Partita No. 1 in B-flat major (BWV825) and Partita No. 3 in A minor (BWV 827), Blechacz beautifully brings out the character of each of the dance movement. In the Praeludium, he infuses the music with a luminosity of sound that reminds me of the legendary recording by Dinu Lipatti. In the Four Duets, BWV 802-805, the artist brings out the quirkiness of each of these little contrapunctal works. In the Fantasia and Fugue in A minor, BWV 944, he really brings out the “fantastic” elements of the opening Fantasia, and takes us on a rollercoaster of a ride in the tremendously exciting and breathtaking Fugue.

I would not want to be without Dinu Lipatti’s recording of the Myra Hess transcription of Jesus belibet meine Freude, but Blechacz’s interpretation makes a worthy addition to the recorded catalogue. He infuses the work with a serenity and repose, and successfully makes the music float as it moves forward.

Hearing these two new recordings by two very different artists, I cannot wait to hear them on stage. Blechacz has been a fairly regular visitor to the Vancouver stage, and his performances are always eagerly welcomed. Cho’s Vancouver recital debut has been much anticipated by the musical community as well as the large Korean community in Vancouver. No doubt, both artists will give us very different, but equally memorable performances.

Cho Seong-Jin makes his Vancouver recital debut on Sunday, November 12th at 3:00 p.m., at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, and Blechacz plays his recital on Sunday, April 22nd, 2018 at 3:00 p.m., at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Monday, June 26, 2017

When the World Stopped to Listen

For a great many years, the only books written about the pianist were The Van Cliburn Legend by Abram Chasins  - a book that took many liberties with facts about Cliburn, and Howard Reigh’s Van Cliburn, which is better researched, but still rather one-sided. Within a year, however, there have two books written about the pianist. Last year, Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights gave a more in depth and comprehensive picture of Cliburn’s win in Moscow, as well as the impact he had on the musical world. This past weekend, I finished reading Stuart Isacoff’s When the World Stopped to Listen – Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath (Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2017).

In this latest volume, Isacoff begins by revealing some interesting information about Cliburn’s mother, an accomplished pianist in her own right, as well as the young pianist’s upbringing. Starting at four years old, Cliburn had to wait on his parents at the dinner table, “as if they were guests, and then to do the same for neighbors.” Cliburn’s parents believed that this would instill a sense of humility in the young man, as well as prevent him from feeling too special. According to the author, “serving graciously became a life refrain”, and would affect Cliburn’s attitude towards his many fans and audience members. Isacoff writes: “This was especially true in the concert hall, where he came to view the audience as guests to be served, a notion that brought such attendant pressures it could turn routine musical occasions into ordeals.” Even to his dying days, Cliburn was known for his courteousness towards even strangers. Perhaps it was this attitude to please that prevented him from having an aloofness of spirit, something that all great artists need.

It was also a great surprise for me to learn that Cliburn’s legendary teacher, Rosina Lhévinne, was not the original choice of Mrs. Cliburn to be Van’s teacher. Cliburn’s friend and fellow pianist Jimmy Mathis was studying with the (at the time) even more famous Olga Samaroff. It was only Samaroff’s sudden death that led his parents to consider Lhévinne as Van’s teacher. As in the Cliff book, Iscaoff reveals how much Lhévinne was hurt by Cliburn’s failing to acknowledge her teaching – not to mention the many hours of free lessons he received from her before the competition – as his famed rose after the competition.

For me, the most interesting chapters were the ones addressing the socio-political landscape of the Soviet Union and the evolution of the Tchaikovsky Competition, as well as the chapter giving a picture of Russian society at the time. It was the year of Sputnik, when the Soviets were “basking in its scientific glory in the space race,” and they wanted to show their superiority in the sphere of music. The organizers of the competition were certain that the winners would be Soviet pianists and violinists. It was a common belief among Russians that in spite of great wealth, American society was “brutish and empty.” In that way, Cliburn’s love affair with Russians, from Khrushchev to ordinary men and women, went a long way into altering that perception. Both Cliff and Isacoff point out in their respective books that Cliburn’s win at the Tchaikovsky sowed the seeds of democracy that led eventually to Gorbachev’s Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Isacoff also reveals some startling facts about Cliburn’s personal struggles with fame. According to the author, Cliburn came to rely heavily upon the treatments of Dr. Max Jacobson, whose patients included, among many celebrities, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy who was well known for his health problems. You can read more about Dr. Jacobson in many of the presidents’ biographies.

We now know that Jacobson’s infamous injections were a cocktail of amphetamines, vitamins, painkillers, steroids, and human placenta – a frightening pharmacological combination. Jacobson’s license to practice medicine was eventually revoked. It was also revealed in the current book that Cliburn had come to depend on astrology in making his personal and professional decisions, to the extent that “he did not make a move without consulting an astrologer.”

Cliburn’s eventual win at the Tchaikovsky, according to Isacoff, was far from a forgone conclusion. In the Appendix of the volume, the author includes the breakdown of scores for the pianists in the second-round which show that the race was very close between Cliburn and Lev Vlassenko, the leading Soviet contender, and Liu Shikun, the leading pianist from Communist China (who was to suffer grievously during the Cultural Revolution). It was only Van’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as well as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 that propelled him to the very top. If you listen to his magisterial performances of these two concerti in the final round, you would understand why. I believe that in that great hall, and in front of that audience, Van Cliburn was truly inspired to give his all. And perhaps nothing that came afterwards would match the intensity and inspiration of that moment.

For me, Cliburn’s greatest impact had to be his elevation of the status (and financial well being) of concert artists, as well as, perhaps unfortunately, focusing our attention towards music competitions, and for its proliferation. There had been other American pianists who had captured top prizes at international competitions. None of them really captured the imagination of the world like Van Cliburn did.

If you were to ask pianists or musicians to name their favourite pianists, probably very few would list Van Cliburn to be among them. No, Van Cliburn’s place in music history is, for me, a result of his really creating for our generation this image of the artist as hero, and for perhaps bringing many people towards an awareness, if not an appreciation, for classical music. I believe that Van Cliburn would be for my generation what Ignacy Jan Paderewski was to the early decades of the century – an inspiring, even larger than life personality, more than a musician or a pianist.

Anyone who has an interest in music, in cold war politics, and in Soviet history and society, would find Isacoff’s well-researched and eloquently written volume a very rewarding read.

Patrick May
June 26, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Strauss Feast in Seattle

No one says goodbye quite like Richard Strauss. And not just in obviously elegiac works like the Vier Letzte Lieder or Metamorphosen. Listen to the final moments of Der Rosenkavalier, Capriccio, the death scene in Don Quixote, or the coda of Eine Alpensinfonie, and you would hear these very beautiful and special moments of farewell.

When I saw the programme for the Seattle Symphony’s concert this past weekend, I knew that I would have to make the trip down to the Emerald City. Vier Letzte Lieder in the first half and Eine Alpensinfonie after the interval – life just doesn’t get better than this. And it is always a treat to hear this wonderful orchestra in beautiful Benaroya Hall.

Soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin was the soprano soloist in the Vier Letzte Lieder, with Thomas Dausgaard sensitively weaving the gorgeous orchestral texture Strauss provides. Barkmin has a voice that could easily sail above any orchestra. Look at the operatic roles she tackles – Marie in Wozzeck, Isolde, Sieglinde, Emilia Marty in Věc Makropulos, to name just a few, and you would realize the kind of voice she needs to have. On Saturday, the power of her voice was of course evident, but there was also sensitivity in how she paints the words in music. It was a deeply moving performance, especially in the final two songs, and her singing of the final lines of Im Abendrot, “Wie sind wir wandermüde – ist dies etwa der Tod?” was especially heartfelt and affecting. She obviously meant what she sang. Thomas Dausgaard was most effective and sensitive in bringing out the beauty of Strauss’s orchestral writing. The French horn and violin solos in Beim Schlafengehen were particularly beautifully played.

The tear ducts were barely dry when Barkmin granted us an encore, Morgen, also by Strauss. It was a wonderfully intimate performance of one of Strauss’s most loving and lovely songs, and the wonderful violinist (I wasn’t sure of her name, as the orchestral personnel lists the concertmaster and associate concertmaster positions as currently vacant) who played the solos deserved equal credits for the meltingly beautiful performance.

A substantially enlarged orchestra – everything but the kitchen sink, almost - filled the stage after the interval for the composer’s Eine Alpensinfonie, which conductor André Previn referred to as “giant piece of strudel.” I personally find this to be one of the composer’s most endearing tone poems. Dausgaard, not surprisingly, reveled in the music, and successfully marshaled the huge orchestral forces and inspired them to play their best. I was so taken with how lush sounding the Seattle strings were on Saturday. There was, however, a feeling of riding from climax to climax, rather than presenting the work as an organic whole, with a sense of totality. This is easier said than done with this large work, as the many “tunes” are so very irresistible. The strings and bassoons played the opening descending B-flat minor scale with a palpable sense of mystery, and the four trombones and tuba at rehearsal 1 matched this atmosphere.

The celli and basses played the opening of Der Anstieg with gusto as well as the necessary weight in sound. I thought that the Jaghörner von ferne at five measures after 18 could have been much more boisterous. It was a little too reserved for my taste. The interplay between the woodwinds and strings in Am Wasserfall was most effectively done. In Auf dem Gipfel, Dausgaard deftly paced the strings in leading up to the oboe solo at 77. The oboe solo was extremely well played. What I missed, however, was this sense of breathless wonder, especially in the off-beat 8th notes at one measure after 77, when the mountain climber beholds the scenery below. However, the slowly emerging theme in the strings (79) unfolded beautifully, as was the brass theme at 80.

In Elegie (100), I thought that the strings could have played with a greater weight of sound. Yes, Strauss did write piano, but he also added espressivo, which I think is more crucial in creating the sadness, the feeling of regret, in the string colours.

The clarinet solo (7 measures after 103) was effectually played, and conjured the sense of impending danger in Stille vor dem Sturm. The orchestra was most impressive with their virtuosic playing in effectively conjuring up the storm. From my seat in row 4, the sound and the force of the orchestra were palpable.  The brass section was most convincing in conveying the feeling of majesty at 128, the few measures leading up to Sonnenuntergang. I was especially looking forward to the organ entry at 134 (Ausklang), since Benaroya Hall is one of the few halls blessed with a beautiful pipe organ. I was not disappointed. I did, however, think that the initial entry was a trifle too loud (Strauss indicated only forte), which took away the feeling of sacredness in the moment. The string playing of the beautiful theme at 138 was most heartfelt. In Nacht, Dausgaard effectively evokes the sense of mystery that was so apparent in the opening.

What a great privilege and pleasure it had been to hear these two great works of Richard Strauss. I am guessing that Eine Alpensinfonie is rarely done not only because of its difficulty, requiring heroic playing from every member of the orchestra, but because of the expense. Dausgaard and each and every one in the Seattle Symphony certainly rose to Strauss’s challenge, and gave all of us an indelible musical experience this past weekend.

Patrick May
Vancouver, Canada

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ending on a High Note

It is always sad every year to realize that the concert season is winding down. The Vancouver Recital Society’s season ended a couple of weeks ago, and the Vancouver Chopin Society presented its final concert of the 2016-2017 season this past Sunday with a recital by the Armenian-born, Russian-trained, American pianist (and famed pedagogue) Sergei Babayan. I had never before heard him in concert, and so it was certainly a treat to have experienced the artistry, musicianship and pianism of this wonderful pianist.

Babayan began his performance with, I am guessing, the Vancouver premiere of Russian composer Vladimir Ryabov’s Fantasia in C minor, in memory of Maria Yudina, Op. 21. This is an incredibly intense and challenging work inspired by the repertoire and life of the great Soviet pianist Maria Yudina. I doubt that many people in North America had heard of Maria Yudina, since she didn’t – or couldn’t – play outside of her native Russia. But she was a pianist in the same order of a Richter or a Gilels. In the piece, there were allusions, or quotes, of themes from pieces that Yudina frequently played, as well as references to Orthodox Chants, because of the pianist’s Christian faith. Babayan’s performance of this demanding work was stunning, capturing the rapidly shifting moods and colours of the work. The work ended, as indicated in the programme notes, with “a dream-like perpetual motion punctuated by bell tones that seems to disintegrate into shattered silence.” The silence and attentiveness of the audience indicated to me that Babayan was successful in conveying the essence of this music.

The pianist continued with the rest of the first half with music by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, playing the pieces without a break. Indeed, Babayan created such a mood of intimacy, especially in the Chopin works, that I felt that he was playing for himself, and that the audience was almost eavesdropping upon this incredible performance. In the Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No. 1, Babayan captured the contrast between the drama and heroism of the outer sections with the lyricism and longing in the middle section. In the great Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, I thought his playing of especially the descending scale at mm. 13 to 16 to be meltingly beautiful. The challenging B section of this waltz sounded as effortless and light as it could possibly be.

The pianist’s playing of the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, was very different from the performance given by Georgijs Osokins last season. Osokins brought out all the colours of this great masterpiece, while Babayan’s interpretation was more inward looking, more intimate. He did not try to make the Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2, bigger than it is, but played it with just the right degree of melancholy and an intense musicality. The Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29 was stunning in its gossamer lightness and breathlessness.

Instead of the Ballade No. 3 that was originally programmed, the artist decided on a last minute programme change, playing instead three short works by Sergei Rachmaninoff – the Etude Tableaux in E-flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5, the Moment Musicaux in E-flat minor, Op. 16, No. 2, and the Moment Musicaux in C major, Op. 16, No. 3. The programme change showcased Babayan’s affinity for the music of the Russian composer. His performance of these works highlighted not only his awesome pianistic abilities, but also the beautiful sound – especially in the lower register of the piano – that he evoked from the instrument (this was also evident in his performance of the Ryabov), a sound that is so well suited to Rachmaninoff’s music.

Ever since hearing Glenn Gould’s stunning first recording of Bach’s monumental work, I have always had a personal bias that the Goldberg Variations as something that Canada owns. An artist like Babayan would obviously have its own interpretation of the work, one that really can lend itself to so many different views. Rather than, to paraphrase Gould’s words, looking for some kind of mathematical correspondence between the theme and the 30 variations, I believe Babayan was trying to convey the character of each individual variation. That said, I thought that his playing of the variations had a logical and natural flow from one to the next, as well as a palpable sense of totality that eludes many artists. In the 25th variation, he did not fall into the trap of wearing the tragedy of the music on his sleeve, but infused it with just the right degree of pathos. Babayan told me afterwards that he was inspired by the attentiveness of the afternoon’s audience.

After hearing Sergei Babayan, I understood why artists like Martha Argerich, Danil Trifonov, and Valery Gergiev regularly sought him out as collaborator. I am already looking forward to his next appearance in Vancouver.