Friday, May 25, 2018

Mahler 9th in Chicago

I had the privilege last Thursday to have attended a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, devoted solely to Mahler’s otherworldly Symphony No. 9 in D major. Any performance of any Mahler symphony is a special occasion, and this performance was one that I would remember for a long time to come.

Right at the outset of the first movement, I was aware of the richness of the Chicago strings, which possesses richness in sound, even in the delicate descending seconds of the second violins and the murmurings sextuplets of the violas. Salonen set a very good pace for the movement, and allowed the music to come into being. I got the feeling that he was gently guiding the musicians along, almost like a suggestion, rather than imposing his views upon the orchestra. The first shattering sounds of the movement, three bars before rehearsal number 6, already gave an indication of the awesome sonic resources of this ensemble. From the many solos scattered throughout the movement (indeed, throughout the symphony), it was obvious that every player in the orchestra is a master of his or her instrument.

In the second movement, Salonen, more than many other performances I had heard, really brought out the weirdness of Mahler’s sound world. The horns handled their solos at m. 13 with aplomb, and the appoggiaturas by the first horn at rehearsal 17 were perfectly placed. I loved the sound colour the contrabassoon conjured at rehearsal 18. At 14 bars before rehearsal number 23 (Wie zu Anfang), Salonen balanced the woodwinds so as to bring out the strangeness, the otherworldliness of Mahler’s sound world, almost like looking at a picture where the images are distorted. At 25 bars after rehearsal number 27 (Sehr gemächlich), the contrabassoon played its solo in a kind of mocking manner, with a great deal of irony. The conductor perfectly placed the two final chords of the movement, giving us the most incredible pianissimo.

The Rondo(Burleske) was played with all the roughness and brutality that the composer calls for. There was a real sense of forward drive throughout the movement. At rehearsal number 37, there was palpable warmth and richness emanating from the Chicago strings. 

This same feeling pervaded through the beginning of the great Adagio. Here, the strings played with an incredible richness and depth of feeling. I had never heard the horn solo at m. 17 (stark hervortretend) played with such beauty of sound and security of tone. In some ways, this was, for me, the most moving moment of the entire performance. At m. 28, the contrabassoon and the celli played their unison passage with the most profound depth, as if the sound was coming from some deep recess. At m. 77 and 78, the oboe and first clarinet played the brief motif with a very touching fragility and vulnerability. There was another very beautiful moment at m. 88 (Stets sehr gehalten), where Salonen allowed the music to just hang by a thread. At m. 95, the English horn really shone with its magnificent solo playing. The conductor did not over-indulge in the climatic half-note fff descending scale at m. 122 (Wieder zurückhaltend), but it was so well placed and executed that the return of the chorale theme at m. 126 became a great moment of catharsis. From here until the end, the musicians were really taking us all on a journey into the netherworld. The audience was spellbound by the music and music-making such that there must have been a full half-minute of silence before the ovation began.

I did not think this was a hear-on-sleeve Mahler performance, à laBernstein. Yet, I do not agree with a review that the music making was cool or detached. Salonen is not an acrobatic conductor, and his conducting appears (to me) to rely on the power of suggestion rather than an imposition of the will. I believe he is the kind of musician that tends to allow the music to speak for itself, which does not equate a lack of involvement. As a composer himself, he conducted Mahler’s work with a scrupulous attention to every detail in the score. The musicians of this great orchestra completed the performance with its astoundingly high level of execution. I, for one, found the whole experience intensely moving, and have been living in the sound world of that performance many days after the experience.

Patrick May

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Grand Finale

The Vancouver Chopin Society rounded out its 20thAnniversary Season with a highly satisfying recital by pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. The young pianist is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, as he is a frequent concerto soloist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the name Bach was almost synonymous with that of Busoni. Today, Bach/Busoni transcriptions seemed to have fallen out of favour with pianists, and Bach’s music are most often played without the “assistance” of other composers. Gavrylyuk’s choice of Bach/Busoni’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor- yes, theToccata and Fugue that is so much a part of Hollywood horror films – makes for a most welcomed choice in programming.

Gavrylyuk’s interpretation of this majestic work is firmly rooted in grand style of the 19thcentury, when pianists exploited (in the best sense of the word) the tonal resources and technical possibilities of the instrument. His pacing was excellent, and his pregnant silences in the opening of the Toccata were most effective. His playing of the fugue began simply, and his technical control of the instrument allowed the music to build in tension as well as intensity. 

In his essay, Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious, Alfred Brendel writes, “The combination of incongruous elements is generally regarded as a distinguishing feature of wit.” I had this statement in my mind as I enjoyed Gavrylyuk’s playing of Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Hob. XVI:32. The composer’s juxtaposition of the “serious” key of B minor and the quirky nature of the music, especially in the outer movements, filled this work with a humour most characteristic of Haydn. The opening of the first movement reminds me of children playing hide-and-seek, tiptoeing around and darting in and out of hiding places. Gavrylyuk played this movement with lovely fingerwork, and a beguiling lightness. The Menuetmovement was played with a charming innocence, not trying to make the music more than a lovely intermezzo between the outer movements. The third movement is a typical example of Haydn’s rough and tumble sense of humour. Once again, the high drama of the key of B minor is set against the hilarity of the music. Gavrylyuk relished every bit of the composer’s wit, playing the music in the manner of a Buster Keaton chase scene. The resulting effect was breathtaking.

The pianist concluded the first half of his recital with a selection of Chopin’s Twelve Etudes, Op. 10. The justly famous Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3, was played simply but lovingly. Gavrylyuk has a keen sense of the cantabile, and he managed to bring a sense of freshness to this very familiar piece of music and to make it a moving experience. In the F major Etude(No. 8), he managed to draw my attention to the beauty of the writing for the left hand, and not his amazing fingerwork in the right hand. I have certainly heard more dramatic interpretation of the Etude in F minor(No 9), but the pianist’s playing of it was probably closer to the composer’s intentions. There are only two indications of fortissimo in the score, and most of the dynamic indications range from pianoto ppp. He played the Etude in A-flat major(No. 10) with an incredible lightness and effortlessness in the right hand, and a keen sense of Chopin’s legatissimomarking in the left hand. The Etude in E-flat major(No. 11) was played with a palpable beauty of sound. Gavrylyuk certainly conjured up a storm in the so-called “Revolutionary”Etude in C minor(No. 12). There was a real feeling of surge in the arpeggios. His playing, dramatic as it was, never lost the cantabilenature of the writing in the left hand. I thought it was very wise of him to have a brief pause between Etudes, allowing the audience to really savour the unique character of each of these remarkable miniatures. 

The artist launched into Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 with incredible energy, and kept it up throughout the work. Gavrylyuk painted the work with the largest palette of tonal colours and the widest dynamic range. He obviously reveled in the sonority of the piano and brought out the sexual energy of the music. I did not think that he was trying to explore the mystical aspects of the music; rather, he took us on a musical and colouristic journey through the labyrinth complexity of Scriabin’s sound world. 

Alexander Gavrylyuk is known, and has a special affinity for, the works of Rachmaninoff. He presented three of the composers Preludes, and the 2ndedition of the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor. I remember the surging left hand of the Prelude in F-sharp minor, Op. 23, No. 1, as well as the dark colours that he managed to bring out. For me, the highlight of the set was his incredibly intense reading of the Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5. In the opening section of the work, he really conjured up in my mind the image of a troika speeding through the icy landscape of Siberia. The beautiful middle section had an emotive quality as well as a real sense of forward motion in the music. And I will always remember the shimmering quality, and the incredible evenness and lightness of his playing of the right hand figuration in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12.

The last work on the programme, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minorwas simply magnificent. Less obviously “tuneful” than the second piano concerti or second symphony, this work already foreshadows at the stylistic and harmonic advances we would hear in the 4thpiano concerto. Throughout the performance, there was not a moment that I felt that this was anything less than a master pianist at work. Technically impregnable and sonically resplendent, Gavrylyuk brought to the fore the bell-like sonority one hears time and again throughout the work, as well as the brooding melancholy of the more lyrical passages. 

Of course the audience clamored for more after that masterful performance, and Gavrylyuk graciously granted us two encores – Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, in a transcription by Zoltan Kocsis, and Arcadi Volodos unbelievably virtuosic arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. In the Vocalise, he brought out the music’s many textures in Kocsis’ idiomatic transcription. Volodos’ Rondo alla Turca arrangement is not for the faint-hearted, and Gavrylyuk’s playing of it was nothing short of astounding, so much so that I wanted to laugh out loud, because it was simply such an incredible pianistic stunt. His technique alone certainly earns him a place in the stratospheric high of a Horowitz, a Lhévinne, or a Barere.

This past week’s recital certainly ended this year concert season on a very high note. The concert was my first encounter with the artistry and pianism of Alexander Gavrylyuk. With recitals such as the one he gave in Vancouver, it seems that his artistic and musical future will be bright indeed. I hope that he will return to us soon, and often.

May 24, 2018

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

An Evening of Masterworks

Last Saturday the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presented a concert with a wonderfully appealing programme – Wagner’sLohengrinPrelude, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony.

I had missed Maestro Constantin Trinks’ last appearance with the orchestra, and I had never encountered Sarah Chang’s artistry in person. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to this performance.

With the Vorspielto Act I of Lohengrin, I would always remember Serge Koussevitzky’s admonition to the orchestra, “When my stick touches the air, you play”. This is really a perfect description to the ethereal pianissimoentrance by the violins, well executed by the violins. Although the strings of the orchestra lack the sheen of the greatest ensembles, it is nevertheless a performance of great splendor and subtlety. I would have wished for more subtle shadings in the crescendo and decrescendo of the first violins at mm. 13-14. There was also some glowingly beautiful wind playing throughout the brief work. I thought that the descending scale at five measures after rehearsal 3 could have had more richness in sound. Trinks had paced the work very well, and the A major chord at fifteen measure after rehearsal 3 was particularly effectively and beautifully placed.

With the famous entrance by the violin, we knew we were in the presence of a great artist. In the opening solo of the first movement, Chang opted to whisper rather than to shout, and the effective was arresting. I was immediately struck by the great beauty of her tone; her middle and lower registers have a palpably silken quality. In the second movement, I was moved by her eloquence and confiding tone. Her playing in this movement was like that of a musical conversationalist, and there was an appealing naturalness in her playing that one finds only in the greatest artists. Her playing of the third movement was filled with a sense of palpable joy and an effortless virtuosity.

Trinks accompanied the concerto effectively, though for me it was an accompaniment rather than a dialogue between orchestra and soloist. The big tune by the strings in the second movement, normally an almost cathartic moment, lacked a sense of urgency. In this slow movement, a feeling of intimacy in the orchestral playing was also lacking. At the beginning of the third movement, I missed a sense of anticipation, and the feeling of inevitability that leads to the entrance by the solo violin. As a result, the overall impression was a lack of totality in the performance, in spite of the absolutely brilliant playing by Chang.

I was particularly looking forward to the performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major(“The Great”), a work that this orchestra has not often played. The pacing of this symphony of “heavenly length” is particularly crucial, and I liked Trinks’ tempo choice in the first movement, and how he took time to let the music unfold. I liked the sound of the string tone in their playing of the main theme (three measures before letter A), conveying power but not aggressiveness. I do question the accelerandothat Trinks took in the build-up to the Allegro, ma non tropposection of the movement. I feel that it would have been more effective to let the tension build with sound rather than with speed. To my ears, the horn entry at fourteen measures after letter F too loud, thereby taking away the far-away quality of this theme. It must be very difficult for the conductor to gauge the two fffmarking by the composer in two spots of the first movement. Trinks missed the emotional impact in these two climatic moments; surely there could have been more of a sense of outburst in these crucial points without pushing the sound excessively? The tempo transition (piu moto) at twenty-five measures after letter N was very effectively paced. However, I did question the tempo change right before the end of the movement (thirteen measures after letter P). Again, the musical effect would have been greater without speeding up.

The haunting and alluring oboe solo at the beginning of the second movement was beautifully played; however, the staccato notes of the strings far too loud and aggressive, thereby taking away the sense of repose of this music. At twenty measures after letter E, I felt that there should have been more diminuendoas well as more of a sense of direction in the return to the main theme. Yet,the fffclimax at letter I was very effectively placed, creating a wonderful feeling of suspense in the pizzicatostring passage immediately following. The playing of the theme by the celli here had a beautifully elegiac quality that I found very moving. At the end of the second movement, I would prefer that there would be no ritard, because a slackening of tempo took away the tension of the music.

The playing of the third and fourth movements, in terms of both pacing and execution, was outstanding. In the opening of the scherzo, the strings had a buoyancy in sound that immediately conveyed the uplift of the music. Trinks’ tempo choice also brought out the liveliness of this movement. At thirty-seven measures after letter B, Trinks gauged the different gradations of sound masterfully. The wind playing in the Triosection was also particularly fetching. 

The fourth movement was played with great urgency, and a real sense of forward motion. The dance-like theme at letter C, almost prefiguring the Slavonic Dancesof Dvorak, had a naturalness and bounce. At the end of the movement, I had the feeling of having lived through an incredible journey of sound. 

It is courageous for any conductor to programme this difficult work by Schubert. In spite of the beauty of its many themes and the obvious greatness of the music, it is not the kind of crowd-pleasing piece for any conductor wanting to make an impression. I am certainly grateful to Constantin Trinks for bringing us the heavenly and otherworldly beautiful of this great symphonic masterpiece.

April 30, 2018

Monday, April 23, 2018

Celebrating Twenty Years

How fortunate we are in Vancouver to have had the opportunity to hear performances from two distinguished pianists, one at the height of his maturity, and the other one still at the early stages of his journey in music. Early this month, Sir András Schiff gave a magnificent recital under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. Yesterday afternoon, Rafal Blechacz gave an equally memorable performance to celebrate the 20thanniversary of The Vancouver Chopin Society.

The common work between the two concerts was Mozart’s late masterpiece, the Rondo in A minor, K. 511. Like Schiff, Blechacz did not fall into the trap of lugubriousness, and wisely kept the impetus of the music. Uncommon in someone so young, Blechacz has a real sense of the architecture of the work, and his playing gave me the feeling of a connection between the first and last note of the music. This was apparent in every work, large or small, that he played yesterday.

Blechacz gave an inspired reading of Mozart’s great Sonata in A minor, K. 310, one of the composer’s most technically challenging and dramatic works. In the opening, the young artist managed to avoid making the left hand chords sound percussive, very difficult on the modern piano, by making those chords part of the larger texture of the music, rather than treating them as mere accompaniment. It is remarkable that so young an artist can infuse the music with a palpable simplicity and naturalness, as he did in this work. In the second movement, he perfectly balanced the contrast between the lyrical and the very dramatic. It is perhaps no accident that the pianist’s most recent recording was devoted to the works of Bach. In the third movement, there was a lightness and textual clarity in his playing that reminds me of how he approached the dance suites of Bach in his recording.  There was a real balance in the vertical and horizontal in the music in the way he approached this final movement. 

I am personally in awe of Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 101, one of the composer’s most original works. It takes any pianist real courage to tackle this musically and technically challenging sonata. Although regarded as one of Beethoven’s late sonatas, I feel that, conceptually and musically, it is closer to the “experimental” sonatas like Op. 81a. Blechacz availed himself magnificently in this incredible work. Once again, there was a sense of connection between the simple rocking motive of the opening measures and the triumphal final chords in the third movement. In the left hand octaves at mm. 7 to 11 of the first movement, he conjured an almost organ-like sound. The last time I heard a sound like that on the piano was from Alfred Brendel, when he gave an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110 (in the left hand octaves of the final fugue.) In the second movement, which almost foreshadows the march from Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Op. 17, Blechacz was technically impregnable, and there was an effortlessness that came across in the music. His acute sense of rhythm served him well in the dotted-rhythmic figures throughout the movement. So wonderful was his sense of musical timing that the brief Adagio, ma non troppo, con affecttomovement became a perfect intermezzo, a sort of musical Segway, before the final movement. His playing of the brief return of the first movement’s opening theme, lasting only seven measures, was charged with meaning. In the final movement, there was a Glenn Gould like clarity in how he handled the musical texture. Blechacz’s playing of the fugue was exhilarating.

The second half of the recital began with Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22. To me, this work often sounds like four beautiful but disparate character pieces rather than movements of a sonata. It is a credit to the artist that he managed to once again highlight the architecture of the overall work. Blechacz captured the fever, the sense of urgency and desperation in the first, third, and final movements. For me, the highlight was his playing of the gorgeous second movement, where he shone a light on the music like a precious gem. 

I am sure many people went to yesterday’s performance to hear Blechacz’s Chopin, and he certainly did not disappoint. In his performance of the composer’s Mazurkas, Op. 24, I was very much reminded of the playing of Arthur Rubinstein. There was again this feeling of simplicity and naturalness that was beguiling. His timing in each of the four dances was impeccable; as was his sense of rubato, not exaggerated or contrived, but giving the sense that it was just as the music should be. I was particularly taken with his interpretation of the Mazurka in C major, Op. 24, No. 2, where he took a slightly slower tempo than usual, but did not take away any of the music’s natural flow. 

Blechacz concluded his recital with Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53. Yes, under the hands of a great artist, it is possible to make this work sound fresh and original. He played the famous opening theme with great simplicity and lightness, but with no lack in the dignity and pride that are so inherent in this music. As in the mazurkas, his sense of musical timing was palpable throughout this performance. His playing of the octave passage in the B section was breathtaking, but not showy. 

It had been a very generous afternoon of music making, but after much urging from the audience, Blechacz granted us an encore of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2, a work that Schiff also played in his recital. Blechacz’s beautiful and thoughtful playing of this beautiful autumnal work by Brahms was a perfect ending to this very memorable of great performances of great music. 

In a world that is full of technically perfect pianists, it is refreshing to hear an artist, especially one so young, who does not make technical proficiency his primary concern. Throughout the afternoon, I never thought of how “well” he played the piano, but how beautiful the musicwas. Certainly I cannot think of a higher tribute to this supremely gifted young artist.

April 23, 2018

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Songs of Farewell

Sir András Schiff made one of his always-welcomed visits to Vancouver and gave us a magnificent recital of music that centers on the idea of farewell.

In each half of the concert, Schiff made the request that there would be no applause until the end. This certainly made for an intense exercise in concentration and stamina not just for the artist, but the audience as well. 

Schiff began his performance with Robert Schumann’s rarely played Variations on an Original Theme in E-flat major (“Ghost Variations”), WoO 24. With the exception of the 5thvariation, I found this music, written when the composer was already exhibiting obvious signs of severe mental illness, much more classically oriented and less “hallucinatory” than earlier works such as Kreisleriana. Schiff has reached a stage in his artistic development where he is now like a master actor, whose smallest gestures – the wink of an eye, the move of a finger - convey volumes. With this work, and with every work in last night’s recital, the music came across with a naturalness and simplicity that was astounding. 

The artist must have given much thought to the structure of his programme, for there was not only a recurring leitmotif in all the pieces performed, but also logic in the key relationship of the order of the works. The next work on the programme, Brahms’ Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117, begins with the heavenly lullaby in E-flat major, the same key as the Schumann just played. Schiff played this familiar work somewhat faster than Brahms’ Andante moderatoindication, probably to avoid the trap of lugubriousness so many pianists fall into, thereby keeping the impetus of the music and infusing it with a lightness not often found in performances of this work. The Intermezzo in B-flat minorthat followed was played with textual clarity and an acute awareness of the beauty of the many subtle harmonic shifts. In the Intermezzo in C-sharp minor, Schiff voiced the opening octave passage beautifully. In the Piu moto ed espressivosection, the layering of the musical texture was deftly and masterfully handled.

Almost as a sorbet to clean the palate between courses, Schiff then moved on to Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511. A minor is of course the submediant chord of the key of C-sharp minor, the key of the previous work performed. I appreciated the pianist’s tempo choice for this work, which brought out the dance-like character of the music. When the theme returns at the end (m. 163), I was surprised to hear the artist giving much prominence to the arpeggiated left hand “accompaniment”, thereby creating almost a lovely countermelody to the by-now-familiar theme.

Schiff ended the first half of his recital by returning to Brahms, with the Sechs Klavierstüke, Op. 118. The first of the six pieces, not surprisingly, is in the key of A minor. In this opening Intermezzo, Schiff seemed to aim to downplay the dramatic elements of the music, focusing instead of the beauty of the music’s many harmonic shifts. Surprisingly, the music did not come across with less sweep and passion. When I looked at the score, I discovered that Schiff was merely observing Brahms’ indication of only fortein the dramatic opening of the work. In fact, there was not one single indication of fortissimoindication from beginning to end, a surprisingly discovery considering how this work is generally played with much force and sound by many pianists. The popular and justly famous Intermezzo in A majorwas played with a flowing quality and a tenderness that was palpable. Schiff beautifully brought out the countermelody in the F-sharp minor middle section, and the voicing of the piu lentochords was nothing short of masterful. The Ballade in G minor was played with a lightness not often found in performances of this extroverted work. The B major section was played with an astounding degree of subtlety as well as beauty of sound. The difficult return to the opening G minor section was masterfully handled. In the Intermezzo in F minor, for me the most elusive of the set, there was a logic and clarity of intent that gave this music a naturalness not often found in many performances. I was very moved by Schiff’s account of the Romanze in F major. He brought out an inner beauty and glow of the music that I had not heard before. It was astoundinghow he played the tricky D major middle section with an absolutely breathtaking lightness. In the opening of the E-flat minor Intermezzo, Schiff magnificently brought out the stunning swirling harmonic clouds of the left hand like a great painter of sound. The artist also perfectly captured the music’s bleakness, the barren musical landscape created by Brahms. Not even in the middle octave section, where most pianists would let loose, did Schiff lose sight of the highly intimate nature of the work. 

It is of course always a treat to hear András Schiff play Bach, as he did last night with the Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor, BWV 869. This work, the last of Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier, fitted in well with the general “mood” of the recital. In the Prelude, Schiff created an almost orchestral texture by playing the left hand with incredible lightness, almost like the pizzicato of violins, and colouring the right hand theme as if played by woodwinds. In the Fugue, Schiff wisely did not overplay the tragedy of the music, with all those falling minor seconds, but injecting it with a kind of wistfulness. 

The programme then returned once again to Brahms, with the Vier Klavierstüke, Op. 119. In the Intermezzo in B minor(again the key relationship with the previous work performed), the opening falling thirds were played with a great deal of resistance. I always feel that these falling thirds shouldsound slower as they descend, and I was grateful that Schiff did just that. In the Intermezzo in E minor, the opening was played with incredible lightness and subtleness, almost like the gentle palpitations of the heart, perfectly conveying the composer’s indication of poco agitato.In the Andantino graziososection, this great master once again brought out the inner beauty of Brahms’ writing. In a word, Schiff’s playing of the Intermezzo in C majorwas simply breathtaking. In the glorious Rhapsodie in E-flat major, Schiff played this music with a quiet resolution, and gracefully conveyed the dense texture of the A-flat major middle section.

Continuing on the idea of farewell, Schiff concluded his recital with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”). His performance of this experimental sonata by Beethoven had an overarching logic and conveyed the sense of connection between the first note to last. In the opening Adagio, there was a feeling of simplicity, but at the same time highlighting all the musical details Beethoven lavished on these mere sixteen measures. At measure 8, Schiff placing of the C-flat major chord was just perfectly done. In last night’s performance, he made me aware of the ingenuity of the writing in the left hand. His playing of the two-note motifs in the left hand (mm. 95 to 109) gave the impression of the sound of the clacking sound of the horse’s hooves. In the second movement, the emotional core of the entire sonata, Schiff perfectly conveyed the stark beauty of the music. I loved the lightness with which he played the 32ndand 64thnotes at m. 33. His playing of the opening of the third movement reminded me of Hans von Bülow’s admonition to a pupil who tried to play this work, “Stop! In the joy of reunion, you rush off, get entangled in the train of your dress, crash down, and smash all the flowerpots in the garden!” Indeed, Schiff brought forth the humour of this movement like a master storyteller. I loved the sound he conveyed in the staccato octaves at mm. 37 to 44, and again at mm. 130 to 137. Throughout the movement, the overwhelming joy of the reunion was constantly palpable. 

This wonderful artist’s thoughtfulness in programming extended even to his encore, where he gave us J. S. Bach’s early and rarely played Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo, BWV 992. The work, inspired by the departure of his brother on a long journey, is, in spite of its title, filled with good humour, from the well-wishers’ descriptions of the dangers of the journey, to the sound of the horse carriage, and finally to the fugue based on the notes played by the post horn. Schiff did not pretend the work to be greater than it is, but played it with his usual beauty of sound, perfection in articulation, and relished in the humour inherent in the music.

Throughout this unforgettable evening, there was a sense of communion between artist, composer and audience. What a privilege for all of us who were there, to be able to partake in some share of András Schiff’s artistry, and to have glimpse into his inner world, as well as the inner world of the composers.

Patrick May
April 11, 2018

Monday, March 5, 2018

Marc-André Hamelin - Recital at the Chan

In the music world, there are pianists, and then there is Marc-André Hamelin. This incredible musician has the ability to make the most difficult, complex music sound easy, even effortless. Yesterday’s recital by the great Canadian pianist was one of the greatest feats of piano playing I had heard in a long time.

The first half of Hamelin’s recital was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt. In the opening work, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor, Hamelin conveyed the improvisatory feeling of the opening measures (malinconico). It was in the vivace section that we first witnessed Hamelin’s effortless virtuosity, tossing off the runs (e molto leggiero) and the repeated notes (leggiero molto) with a lightness that was breathtaking. Hamelin’s technical abilities were so far above the challenges of the music that the closing octave and chordal passages sounded positively exhilarating.

The third work in Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is, for me, one of the composer’s most profoundly beautiful works. In the opening, Hamelin made the awkward right hand accompaniment sound smooth and floating, at the same time projecting the gorgeous left hand melody. More importantly, the artist conveyed the spiritual core of the music. The climatic passages sounded absolutely exultant, but never forced.

The Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H once again reminded us of Hamelin’s awesome command of the keyboard as well as his awareness of the architecture of the work. Under his hands, this somewhat loosely constructed work took on a logic that is sometimes missing. In the more dramatic passage, Hamelin conjured up such massive sonorities that the sound of the piano took on orchestral qualities. It reminded me of the incident when Liszt himself played his transcription of Belioz’s March to the Scaffold, from his Symphonie Fantastique. Under Liszt’s hands, the work became more effective on the piano than even the orchestra.

In all three Liszt works that made up the first half of his recital, Hamelin held the music within a tight rhythmic framework, thereby giving the music an appealing restraint and a sense of nobility.

With any Hamelin recital, there would always be the new and unexpected, and the discovery in the second half had to be Samuil Feinberg’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat minor, Op. 6. A Russian pianist and composer who lived between the years 1890 to 1962, Feinberg’s work is stylistically reminiscent of Scriabin. A one-movement work of about 10-minute duration, there is, within that relatively short time, a myriad of moods, textures, and tempi. Once again, Hamelin was able to make sense of, or allow us to see the logic behind, this complex work. Regardless of how dense the pianistic forest is, this remarkable artist always seemed to see his way clearly through.

Hamelin continued the second half with Claude Debussy’s Images, Book 1. The entire performance was ravishing, in a cool, objective kind of way. It was not the kind of beauty with great splashes of colour, like a Monet or a Renoir, but one of absolute textual clarity, and an unerring evenness of touch and tone. He played Reflets dans l’eau with little of the rubato that the composer indicated. Hamelin seemed to be operating within a rather narrow range of sonorities. Even the big transition to E-flat major was somehow underplayed. That said, it was a performance that has its own logic and exquisiteness. In Hommage à Rameau, Hamelin conveyed the feeling of emptiness and nothingness in the opening of the work. He evoked beautiful sonorities from the piano in Commeneer un peu au dessous du mouvement, building the music up to its incredible climax before returning to the desolate landscape of the opening. In Mouvement, Hamelin played the triplets with the most incredible lightness and evenness that took one’s breath away. The decrescendo towards the end of the work (presque plus rien) was the most beautiful I had ever heard.

Not surprisingly, Hamelin pulled out all his pianistic stops with the final work on the programme, Leopold Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song. Hamelin is one of the few contemporary pianists with the courage, not to mention the superhuman pianistic chops required to play these Godowsky “reworkings” of Johann Strauss. Needless to say, the playing was both musically impeccable and pianistically stunning. My only quibble was that it was a little lacking in a sense of fun, or the feeling that he was pulling an incredible stunt (which he was).

Under the urging of the appreciative audience, he gave us what would probably have been the Vancouver premiere of his own Toccata “L’Homme armé”. Written as the commissioned piece of the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition, Hamelin’s work tests to the limit every pianist’s technical and musical ability. Throughout the recital, I had the feeling that Hamelin approaches each work with the insight of a composer. Here, we were witness to a composer giving us his take on his own composition. It was a satisfying end to an incredible afternoon of piano playing and musicianship.

Patrick May
March 5, 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Perry So with the VSO

Conductor Perry So made a welcomed return to Vancouver this weekend, conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I was moved by So’s music-making at his first Vancouver appearance, when he substituted for the scheduled conductor. He was a sensitive partner to Louie Lortie in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, and gave an incandescent reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor. This time around, the programme chosen probably had less popular appeal, which unfortunately accounted for the many empty seats in the Orpheum Theatre last evening.

The first piece on the programme last night was Jocelyn Morlock’s Earthfall. Morlock is the orchestra’s Composer in Residence, and many of her compositions have been performed often by the orchestra. Earthfall is a brilliantly colourful and evocative work - one that I hope will be repeated often. In her talk before the performance, the composer shared her experience playing in a gamelan ensemble, which influenced her composition of the present work. Indeed, the gentle, rhythmically pulsating beginning of the work did indeed remind me of that beautiful instrument from Bali. The opening of the work is almost minimalistic in style, with changes taking place slowly over time and with slowly building tension. The texture and tension build to a climax, after which came a quieter section (the tension remains though), with violins playing in the high register, almost to provide colours, set against the woodwinds and brass. There was a beautiful theme for the second and then first violins, and the music came to a tranquil ending with the lower registers of the violins set against the fluttering sounds of the winds.

It is often difficult to judge a performance based upon a first hearing of an unfamiliar work, but I believe So and the orchestra captured the essence, the changing moods, as well as the colourful nature of the work. Yesterday’s performance confirmed my impression of So as having a great command of the orchestral resources. The orchestra responded well under his direction, and all its “departments” outdid themselves with their outstanding playing in this technically demanding and musically challenging work.

Violinist Alexandra Soumm made her debut with the orchestra in the same concert with Edouard Lalo’s colourful and virtuosic Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21. I was as impressed with So as a gallant accompanist as I was with Soumm’s tempestuous playing.

I loved the weighty string tone So evoked at the beginning of the 1st movement (Allegro non troppo). For the first time, the strings were well balanced against the brass instruments of the orchestra. Soumm has a rich, luxuriant and vibrant sound that could cut through the orchestral texture, and she certainly rose to the challenge of the colourful and demanding string writing with aplomb.

Similarly, I was taken with the quality of the string tone at the quiet beginning of the 2nd movement. In this movement (Scherzando: Allegro molto) I appreciated the soloist more for the virtuosity of her playing than for capturing the Spanish flavour and rhythm of the music. Her playing in this movement was somewhat metronomic and did not “move” enough rhythmically.

The orchestra began the 3rd movement with great energy, and again with a sense of weight in the string tone. Soloist, conductor and orchestra captured the inflections of the Spanish rhythm, and the timing between soloist and conductor was perfect. Here, Soumm also highlighted the richness of her tone, especially in the lower register of the instrument, and she also highlighted the more rhetorical nature of the music.

I appreciated the spaciousness of the opening of the 4th movement. In fact, I think I heard some of the best brass playing by this orchestra in a long time. Here, our soloist showed her lyrical side, playing with a wonderful intimacy. The few brief orchestral outbursts were also wonderfully played.

I would have wished for a little more lightness in the joyful 5th movement of the work. The playing was colourful and exciting here, and the orchestra, under So, highlighted all the rhythm and colours inherent in the music.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 is, I believe, a challenge for conductor, orchestra, and audience. A great performance of this work requires virtuosic playing from every member of the orchestra. Last year, I heard a never-to-be-forgotten performance of this same work by the Chicago Symphony under Ricardo Muti, a performance whose sound I have been carrying in my head.

I believe So’s interpretation of this difficult work is an indication of a young musician still figuring things out. Yes, he is enormously talented and musical, but I believe he is now thinking through his interpretations.

But, better this than taking the easy way out for any musician.

I thought that the slow introduction of the 1st movement (Ziemlich langsam) called for far more tension than the musicians delivered. The descending scale at mm. 18 to 21 should be played with far more intensity and greater weight in the sound. As well, I missed a real sense of build-up in the few brief measures (mm. 22 to 28) to the 1st theme (Lebhaft) at m.29. At m. 29, the articulation needed to be clearer in the strings, because there was some muddiness in the sound, and the off-beat accents at m. 35 should have been much sharper. I believe that at Letter E, there could have been more of a sense of forward propulsion.

I missed the sense of inevitability in the transition to the second movement, a Romanze (Ziemlich langsam). I wished for more of a “glow” in the sound of the oboe solo, and more of a feeling of innigkeit in the playing. Also, the triplet figures of the 1st violins needed to be liberated a little, and perhaps more soloistic playing.

On the whole, the 3rd and 4th movement worked much better, and orchestra and conductor seemed to have hit their stride here. The weight of sound I missed in the 1st movement was evident from the outset of the 3rd movement. There was much more of a sense of urgency throughout the Scherzo (Lebhaft). The first violins played the eighth-note passage (m. 476) beautifully. I loved the wonderful transition into the 4th movement, as well as the build-up of tension into m. 660 (Lebhaft). Throughout the movement, the balance was good, and kudos to the brilliant playing of the VSO brass. The woodwind playing at m. 815 to 826 was magnificent. So led a great transition into the final bars of the movement at m. 831 (Schneller), and the orchestra in turn gave him truly wonderful playing here. I feel that the ending would have made a greater impact had the final chord been written as a quarter note instead of a long whole note.

The audience gave the orchestra and conductor what I would call an ambivalent ovation. This was unfortunate, because it really took courage to programme this difficult symphony, a bold movement by a guest conductor still making an impression. I hope that management of the VSO would invite him back as a guest conductor on a regular basis. I would be very interested to follow the career and artistic development of this young conductor and musician.

Patrick May
February 6, 2018