Thursday, September 17, 2020

Revisiting a special Brahms First PIano Concerto

Shortly before the end of his long performing career, Arthur Rubinstein made a final recording of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  Mr. Rubinstein had been playing the concerto since he was around twelve years old. According to My Young Years, the first volume of the pianist’s memoirs, his teacher laughed when he expressed the wish to learn this work, but then young Rubinstein brought it to the subsequent lesson and played it to his teacher’s amazed satisfaction. 

 

The recording also represents Mr. Rubinstein’s only appearance on London-Decca. Special arrangements had to be made at the time to temporarily release the pianist from his contractual obligations to RCA Victor. 

 

My first live performance of this concerto was with Claudio Arrau, and it has remained one of my favourite symphonic works. I somehow felt the need to hear that recording again this morning, First off, if you are looking for a note-perfect, silken smooth performance of this concerto, this is not for you. Mr. Rubinstein was close to 90 when he played this performance, and hitting all the correct notes was certainly not his primary goal.

 

I found this performance incredibly moving, and felt that it represents a wonderful bookend to Mr. Rubinstein’s artistic and musical life. For him, to play this concerto with Mehta, an old friend, and this “orchestra of exiles” from the nation of Israel, whom he loved, made for very special music making. 

 

Having played chamber music all his life, Mr. Rubinstein does not make the superhuman demands of this enormous work a showcase for himself, but takes an almost chamber music like approach to make the piano’s musical line an organic component of the giant orchestral fabric. As well, there is a real give and take, a real feeling of dialogue between him and Mehta. Mr. Rubinstein had said that it was always a feast to play with Mehta, as it was with George Szell before that. 

 

In the slow movement, Mr. Rubinstein plays the music in a reflective manner, and imbues the music with an inner glow, while in the outer movements, the sound evokes a feeling of ruggedness. In addition, the relatively modern recording technology (or perhaps it was the London engineers) captures the pianist’s piano sonorities, much more so than in his earlier RCA recordings. His earlier recording with Fritz Reiner, long considered a classic, seems more “light-weight” compared with this Israel recording, which really has a sense of weight in the sound.  

 

Mr. Rubinstein’s performance with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic evoke in my mind the image of magnificent granite. To be sure, the musicians in this recording bring out the epic quality of Brahms’ great concerto.

 

With the state our world is in – challenges and stress during this pandemic, political division in the United States, and the hopelessness of the fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong - hearing this deeply moving performance was for me a cathartic experience, as well as one that gave me hope during this bleak time.

 

I am still young enough to remember that every Rubinstein recording was a special occasion, something to celebrate. The music world has changed much since those innocent days. At least we have this unforgettable artistic memento by the great Arthur Rubinstein, someone who to this day represents for me what it really is to be a musician.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Poet of the Piano

Although not a medal winner at the 1st International Chopin Competition for Period Instruments, Dimitry Ablogin has been enjoying a busy post-competition career. His recital at this year’s Chopin and His Europe Festival clearly shows not only a highly talented pianist, but also a musician and artist with artistry and maturity far beyond his tender years. 

 

The opening piece, Mendelssohn’s Andante cantabile e Presto Agitato, WoO 6, from 1838, as well as the Chopin selections, were played on an Érard piano. The intense lyricism of his playing was immediately apparent with the first notes of the Mendelssohn. He appears to be one of those musicians capable of producing liquid sound, many different shadings of piano, as well as whispering pianissimo. In the presto section, I was captivated by the clarity, lightness (especially in the bass notes) and quickness (not just tempo-wise) of his playing, capturing the essence of the keyboard figurations so typical of Mendelssohn. His playing of this presto section reminded me very much of the scherzo from the composer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

Ablogin gave deeply felt performances of his choice of Chopin, beginning with the Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7. I admire the flexibility of his line, playing the melody very much like a string instrument, as well as the beauty of his phrasing, allowing the music to unfold naturally. Throughout this short work, there were many moments of heart-piercing sadness. 

 

In the Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, probably the one piece that is most identified with what is Chopin, his legato playing was simply astounding, almost letting one note melt into another. He played the coda like a beautiful operatic duet. The entire piece, from first notes to last, was played almost like one enormous arch. 

 

The Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 equally captured my attention. It was very much an inward-looking interpretation, allowing us to have a glimpse into the very heart of the music as well as making us feel its heartbreaking beauty. In the opening, he managed to paint the music with many shades of sound colours, all within a fairly narrow dynamic range. This large work, elusive to many pianists, did not come across as a series of disjoined (albeit very beautiful) episodes, but was played with a real sense of organic unity. In the softer parts of the work, Ablogin infused the music with an inner glow. 

 

After intermission, the young artist performed Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 126. For this work, Ablogin chose to play on a copy of a Buchholtz piano, built by master instrument builder Paul McNulty. 

 

Ablogin played the waltz theme, written in a childlike, almost childish fashion, with great humour, and a real “bounce” to the dance. On this beautiful period instrument, Beethoven’s hallmark accents did not come across with any less impact. If Beethoven thoroughly exploited – in the best sense of the word - every aspect of Diabelli’s simple waltz theme, Ablogin certainly succeeded, with his astounding pianism, in bringing out the humour (a vital factor in playing these variations, I think) and unique character of each variation. Ablogin really knew how to work with the instrument, and as I listened to his playing, I actually forgot that I was hearing an “old” instrument. Under the hand of a lesser artist, a performance of this extended work would seem interminable, but Ablogin managed to give Beethoven’s massive construction a sense of coherence and unity. This is a magnificent performance of this Mount Everest of the piano literature, a towering achievement for any pianist, let alone one so young.

 

As if the giant set of variations was not sufficient, Ablogin generously granted us an encore, Beethoven’s charming Rondo in C major, Op. 51, playing this lighthearted work with great flexibility of line - this appears to be a hallmark of his musicianship - and as much lightness, grace and charm as called for by the music.

 

Every artist will have his or her own path. In a recent performance, I had also been moved by the Chopin performance of Tomasz Ritter, the gold medalist of the aforementioned Chopin competition for period instruments. Of course, no one could tell how these very different musicians will mature and develop. But I can say for certain that Ablogin is an artist we should all keep an eye on. I believe that we will be hearing much more from this young poet of the piano in the decades to come. With young musicians like Ritter and Ablogin, the future of music appears to be in good hands.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Final Concert of the 75th Duszniki Festival

There seemed to have been an embarrassment of musical riches from Poland this past weekend. There was Nelson Goerner’s beautiful performance at Warsaw’s “Chopin and His Europe” Festival and, almost at the same time, pianist Kevin Kenner’s outstanding recital at the prestigious Duszniki Festival.

 

Kenner began his performance with Ned Rorem’s Barcarolle No. 2, the second of a set of three Barcarolles written in a period of ten days (November 17 to 26) in 1949. Each Barcarolle is dedicated to a pianist personally close to the composer, and the one performed at Kenner’s recital is dedicated to Rorem’s close friend, pianist Shirley Rhoads. The splendor and warmth of Kevin Kenner’s sound highlighted Rorem’s beautiful harmonies as well as the introspective, almost hymn-like nature of this gorgeous work.

 

The atmosphere evoked by the Rorem work continued with music by Robert Schumann, beginning with the Romance in F-sharp major, Op. 28, No. 2. Kenner certainly heeded Schumann’s marking of Einfach (simply) for the work, playing it with disarmingly directness and simplicity. In the outer sections of the short work, he infused the music with an inner glow, just as he effectively underscored the darker, slightly more turbulent harmonies of the middle section. Kenner’s interpretation of the work reminded me very much of a classic performance by Benno Moiseiwitsch, in sound as well as pacing.

 

The recital continued to draw upon music from Schumann’s inner world, with the Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, for me one of the composer’s most personal and revealing works. From the first notes of the first section’s opening piece, Kenner’s playing of this large work was deeply felt; he certainly highlighted the very intimate, very inward-looking nature of the entire score, and brought out the character of the two-sided nature – the boisterous and passionate Florestan versus the shy and reticent Eusebius – of the composer’s creative genius. In movements 3 (Mit Humor) and 4 (Ungeduldig), he certainly brought out the spirit of the dance, whereas in the introspective movements 2 (Innig), 5 (Einfach), 7 (Nicht schnell) he played it as if he was the composer improvising at the piano. In movement 6 (Sehr rasch), he highlighted the fever and almost hallucinatory nature of the music. Kenner’s playing of movement 8 (Frisch) brought out the feeling of a chase in the music. 

 

In the opening movement of the second section (Sehr rasch), Kenner captured my attention with the skills of a master storyteller. Moreover, he successfully weaved his way through Schumann’s complex web of counterpoint and syncopation in the movement. He effectively captured the ticklish humour in movement 3 (Mit Humor) and the more unbuttoned hilarity in the outer sections of movement 4 (Wild und lustig). Movement 5 (Zart und singend) was played with disarming simplicity as well as the most gorgeous singing tone. The coda was played with sudden indelible warmth. Kenner played the B section of movement 6 (Frisch) with a lovely bel canto, highlighting this aria-like nature of the music. I found his playing of the 8th movement (Wie aus der Ferne) incredibly moving. The return of the theme from movement 2 of the first section brought us back to the dream-like nature of the music. In the final movement (Nicht schnell) Kenner kept us in this beautiful dreamlike state by drawing us even more into the innermost core of Schumann’s fertile imagination. This was truly masterful and very moving interpretation of this exceedingly difficult score. 

 

Kenner devoted the second half of his programme to some earlier mazurkas and a polonaise by Chopin. But he opened with the very popular and familiar Nocturne in E minor, Op. posth., not falling into the trap of sentimentality but infusing the music with dignity and depth of feeling.

 

In the mazurkas, Kenner highlighted the joy, innocence and, in some cases, the earthiness of these early composition, before the composer was exposed to the tragedy and vicissitudes of the world outside Poland that were to colour his later works. Again, Kenner played these dances without pause, and as if he were improvising at the piano; his understanding of, as well as his uncanny feeling and love for this music, playing them to the manor born, so to speak, was infectious. 

 

I was especially grateful to him for concluding his recital with the very rarely played Variations on "Là ci darem la mano", Op. 2. This was of course the piece that so captured the imagination of Robert Schumann, for him to coin the now classic phrase, “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius”, in his review of the work. Again, Kenner obviously identified with this music, playing it not only with towering and rousing virtuosity, but also with a great sense of fantasy. His interpretation prompted in my mind of the words of Schumann in his fanciful and imaginative review, of how the dramatis personae in Mozart’s opera came alive before his eyes when he hears this music.

 

Kenner remained with Chopin in his encore, and generously gave us the (Liszt) transcription of Wiosna (Spring), one of the composer’s Polish songs, playing it with the same directness and simplicity that appear to be the hallmark of his music making.

 

During this time of isolation, I am indeed grateful for these musicians and music festivals for making available these memorable musical experiences, and I ponder with wonder at the technology that enables us to bring such beauty to every corner of the globe.

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Opening Concert at the Chopin and His Europe Festival

On August 15th, pianist Nelson Goerner played the opening recital at the 16th Chopin and His Europe in Warsaw. I had had the pleasure of hearing Goerner in recital several times, and yesterday’s performance only reinforced my certainty that he is indeed a master pianist and artist.

 

Goerner opened the concert with Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 81a (Les Adieux). The chords of the opening captured my attention immediately, with the pianist beautifully playing the horn-like descending chords. In those brief sixteen measures, Goerner lavished the music with a wide range of sound colours. In the Allegro, he effectively highlighted the shape of the arch-like opening theme, as well as the constantly shifting moods of the movement. In the second movement (Abwesenheit), he brought out the bleakness of the opening measures and the warmth and sense of yearning of the second theme. Goerner played the opening run of the third movement (Das Wiedersehen) with supreme confidence, rushing us headlong into the joys of the opening theme.

 

In the 15 Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35 – the so-called ‘Eroica’ Variations - that followed, we can surely say that Beethoven exploited (in the best sense of the word) every compositional possibility of that simple theme. In yesterday’s performance, the performer took the composer’s notes and recreated this masterpiece for us by exploiting every pianistic and musical challenge laid down by the composer, bringing out the humour, bravura, orchestral effects, as well as the unique character of each variation. In the final fugue, Goerner successfully navigated the fine balance between clarity of line and the forward surge of the music.

 

The Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47, was the only offering by Chopin in yesterday’s performance. To my ears, it was an introspective performance that highlighted the structural integrity of this large work, without sacrificing the beauty and colours of Chopin’s writing.

 

In Liszt’s Valse oubliée, S. 215, Goerner brought out the charm as well as the quirkiness of this miniature masterpiece, giving us sparkling passagework that was crystalline in its clarity. In the Rhapsodie Espagnole, S. 254, Goerner did not draw my attention to the virtuosity the works demand – which is considerable – but emphasized the dignity and nobility inherent in this music. His performance of this Liszt work reminded me of the title of one of Alfred Brendel’s essays on Liszt, where he referred to Liszt’s “nobility of spirit”. This nobility of spirit was certainly clearly apparent in Goerner’s Liszt interpretation.

 

Goerner’s encore was Paderewski’s Nocturne in B-flat major, Op. 16, No. 4. Kevin Kenner introduced me to this charming work when he played it, also as an encore, after his Vancouver recital last year. Kenner applied a lighter touch to this music, and the music came across as beautifully limpid and delicate. I thought that the depth of sound Goerner employed when playing this music gave it an extra dimension as well as a more velvety sound colour. 

 

I was very envious of the (sparsely spaced) audience in Warsaw, who had the privilege of not only witnessing this masterful performance, but also being at a concert hall, hearing this music live. I was really very much bowed over by Goerner’s performance yesterday. I am grateful that he is a young man still, which means we can expect many more years of continued artistic growth, as well as many more memorable performances from this artist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, August 3, 2020

Leon Fleisher

I was four years old when Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand.

 

To me, the name of Leon Fleisher is really just that – a name. Of course, his Beethoven and Brahms concerti recordings are, or should be, parts of every music lover’s collection. Of course I knew about his playing of the left hand piano repertoire, as well as his careers as conductor and teacher. But as a young music lover and music student, Fleisher remained for me a historic figure. 

 

I had read with interest about his “come back” as a two-handed pianist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Sergiu Comissiona in Franck’s Symphonic Variations, and I knew that he had done some performing of the standard repertoire since that occasion.

 

In the 1990’s, when Comissiona was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Leon Fleisher came and was soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Of course I had to go.

 

I attended that concert with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation - anticipation because I would finally get to hear this legendary musical figure perform in person, and trepidation because I couldn’t help wondering how he would manage with this treacherously difficult piece lasting a good three quarter of an hour. 

 

Fleisher came and played. And played it he did. It was a glorious and glowing performance of the concerto. I must add that I had a ten-second encounter with Fleisher backstage, but all I could manage was to stammer something to the effect of, “It’s an honour meeting you.”

 

What I remember was being so very moved, not just by the performance, but also by the courage it must have taken for him to do it. For any pianist, the Brahms concerto remains a formidable musical and technical challenge. But for someone who hadn’t been regularly performing for a couple of decades, it must have taken incredible determination, will, and an overwhelming love for the art of music. It is an experience that remains with me to this day.

 

Rest in peace, Leon Fleisher. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

A Recital from Żelazowa Wola

I have been enjoying many of the recitals from Żelazowa Wola, Chopin’s idyllic birthplace outside Warsaw, which comes to us on Sunday afternoons. Today’s artist was the distinguished Polish pianist and pedagogue, Zbigniew Raubo.

 

The opening work, the Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 50, No. 2 was played with a dignity, an elegance, richness of tone and depth of sound, as well as a complete identification with the style of this music. The rubato was natural and never sounding affected. In the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 3, Chopin’s supreme masterpiece amongst all the mazurkas, Raubo effectively contrasted the range of moods laid out by the composer, taking us all through a panoramic sonic and emotional journey.

 

The artist continued his performance with the Ballade in F minor, Op. 52, playing the opening theme with simplicity, but a panoply of sound colours and tones. Raubo was in complete control of every element of this large work, clearly threading his way through the work’s complex polyphony, and imbuing the work with absolute organic unity, rather than merely a disparate series of beautiful moments. His playing here highlighted the otherworldly beauty of Chopin’s melodic invention, especially in the late works. The treacherously difficult coda was played with a resounding virtuosity and absolute confidence. I found his playing of this great late work of the composer supremely moving.

 

Raubo continued his recital with the Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 34, No. 1, playing this light-hearted work with an easy elegance and effectively conveying the high-spirits and overwhelming joyousness of this music. 

 

In the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, Raubo’s playing brought across the gravity, high tragedy and utter seriousness of the music. The depth of sound and full tone in his playing served this work particularly well. In the middle chorale-like section, he voiced the chords beautifully, and effectively paced the build-up to the cataclysmic climax before the return of the opening theme, painting a picture of an utterly and completely desolate landscape. 

 

The sadness of the nocturne is immediately dispelled by the beautiful opening passage of the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22, for me one of Chopin’s most technically and musically demanding works. Raubo understood the bel canto nature of the Andante section completely, playing the Bellini-like melody with a beguiling beauty of sound. The transitional section was played with a complete identification with the rhythmic intricacies of the music, and transitioning into the brilliance of the Polonaise with complete logic. The Grande Polonaise was played with supreme elegance, as well as utter brilliance and resounding virtuosity.

 

How fortunate we are that even in this time of isolation and uncertainty, we can still enjoy the musical offerings from faraway places, thanks to the wonders of technology. I was thankful for Raubo for his memorable performance. This wonderful series of recitals has brought us performances by many highly gifted young performers. But Raubo’s playing demonstrated an artistry of a higher order, as well as an understanding of the composer’s aesthetics and musical invention that comes from a lifetime of study, practice and maturation. For me, this was and is an artist and musician that shows a complete identification with the music of Chopin. 

 

I had been saddened by news of the postponement of the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, as I was looking forward to my first visit to Poland. I hope that medicine and science will give us the solution to overcome the Corona virus, so that I will have an opportunity to visit the fabled land of Chopin, Arthur Rubinstein and Saint John-Paul II.

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, June 27, 2020

An Online Musical Experience

Pianist Tomasz Ritter, winner of the 1st International Chopin Competition for Period Instrument, gave an online all-Chopin recital under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society and Early Music Vancouver. 

 

Even in an age where there are so many excellent, outstanding pianists, true Chopin interpreters are relatively rare. 

 

Tomasz Ritter is a true Chopin player.

 

Playing on an 1847 Broadwood piano – the same manufacturer of piano Chopin used for his final concert tour of England and Scotland – Ritter draws a rich sound and a diverse palette of colours from this instrument. Unlike modern instruments, period pianos call for an artist who knows how to work with the instrument.

 

Ritter’s playing captured my attention right from the first chords of the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. I love his pacing of this intimate work, transitioning from the lyrical opening, to the more animated middle section, and returning to the opening theme. 

 

His playing of the opening of the Etude in E minor, Op. 25, No. 5 is a little more pedaled than I am used to hearing, thereby giving the music a slightly different, less scherzando-like character. The gorgeous middle section is played with a warm sound as well as an attention to details to the musical texture.

 

The pianist gives a deeply felt performance of the justly famous Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3. I have always found it interesting that Chopin originally indicated vivace (fast, lively) as a tempo marking for the work. Whether or not the composer was thinking of a very different character for the piece, or whether it was an error, we would never know. Perhaps the composer is warning future pianists not to “drag” the music, or to milk the beautiful melody for all that it is worth. I appreciate Ritter’s tempo choice in his performance. He brings out all the otherworldly beauty of the music, but keeps the horizontal flow of the musical line. 

 

Ritter’s keen sense of the musical line is again apparent in his performance of the Waltz in A minor, Op. 34, No. 2. Under the wrong hands, this music can end up sounding lugubrious. Not so under this young artist’s hands. He strikes a perfect balance between the melancholy colours of the music, but at the same time making the music float in air.

 

The Etude in C minor, Op. 10, No. 12 is given a highly dramatic reading. At the same time, no matter how heightened the drama may be, there is always an indelible sense of musicality in his sound.

 

His playing of the composer’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2 captures my attention not only in the richness and beauty of sound, but with a palpable sense of flow and in maintaining the forward motion of the music. 

 

In the three larger scale works that follow, Ritter really makes full use of the power and projection of the instrument. He plays the opening of the relatively rarely played Polonaise in E-flat minor, Op. 26, No. 2, with tremendous energy and sweep, and also captures perfectly the unique rhythmic character of the dance form, especially in the somewhat quirky middle section. 

 

Tomasz Ritter plays the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 with a sense of buoyancy to the music, as well as with a sense of totality, not merely one episode after another of beautiful moments. He has an absolutely clear sense of the voice leading as well as the intricate counterpoint within the music. In the coda, he conveys the sense of an overflowing and overwhelming sense of joy.

 

In the Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, Ritter captures both the demonic as well as angelic qualities that Chopin set as stark contrasts against each other. In the dramatic opening section, he conveys the frightful, phantasmagoric quality of the piano writing. I was deeply moved by his playing of the beautiful middle section, based on the Polish Christmas carol, “Sleep, Little Jesus”, and completely drawn into this incredibly intimate moment, where the composer appears to be baring his soul. From the first notes, to the cataclysmic coda that ends the work, Ritter is in complete control of both the pianistic and musical elements of this complex work. 

 

Even though I am hearing the music with the limited fidelity of my computer speakers, Ritter’s obvious pianistic talents, as well as the maturity of his musical thoughts, come through loud and clear. He captures every facet of Chopin’s creative genius, the organic unity of each work rather than a series of beautiful but unrelated moments. He captures the sentiments of the music, but without sentimentality.

 

At this point, we do not yet know when live musical performances will return. But we can avail ourselves, through technology, of the seemingly limitless musical offerings that we can find in cyberspace. 

 

Tomasz Ritter is obviously a young musician to watch. I look forward to the day when he will be able to come over to these shores and share his talent with us in person.