Monday, May 28, 2012

Anniversary Celebrations

Last Saturday

I had the privilege to attend the concert marking the 40th anniversary of Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama’s association with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I was very happy that the orchestra decided to mark the occasion with a presentation to the maestro, because Akiyama’s twelve year tenure with the orchestra was instrumental (no pun intended) in making the orchestra what it is today. Anniversaries are important, only in that they remind us of occasions and people that are precious to us.

Pianist Claudio Arrau, who had played with some of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, once called Mr. Akiyama “one of the elect.” I was reminded of this statement again when this wonderful conductor gave the downbeat to Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute. He drew a beautiful string tone in the slow introduction to the overture, and the ensemble as well as the pacing of the body of the overture was as impeccable as it could be. Mr. Akiyama chose to use a fairly large orchestra for the overture, but the result was as light and buoyant as can be.

The soloist of the evening, pianist Yevgeny Subdin, was lucky to have had Maestro Akiyama as a collaborator in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491. When I attended Mr. Sudbin’s solo recital in Vancouver last year, I had found much to admire in his playing and musicianship. The young pianist did not disappoint in Mozart, his passagework in the concerto was beautifully executed, reminding us of Mozart’s dictum that playing the piano should be “like oil.” His Mozart playing is big, bold, and dramatic, and he brought out all the dark colours this particular concerto calls for. I would have personally preferred a more (for lack of a better word) “classical” approach to the piece, but Mr. Sudbin’s interpretation is an entirely valid and deeply satisfying one.

I was surprised to see on the second half of the programme Claude Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse as well as La Mer. La Mer is of course one of the touchstones of the orchestral repertoire, but I was ignorant of an orchestral version of L’isle joyeuse, one of the composer’s major (and perhaps most difficult) piano works. In both works, Maestro Akiyama drew ravishing playing from all the entire orchestra. From the rapturous joy of L’isle joyeuse to the dark and brooding opening to La Mer, the orchestra was in top form.

Mr. Akiyama’s left hand is a thing to behold. There are conductors who beat time with both hands, but Mr. Akiyama uses his left hand to subtly cue the various instrumentalists, but also to shape, sculpt, and colour the music like a master painter. Debussy’s masterful evocation of the sea was never more powerful and beautiful as it was on Saturday evening.

Dimitri Shostakovich used to say that in music, there are no generals, because we are all soldiers of music. Maestro Akiyama has been a perfect soldier of music, one who uses his talents in service to music and to the composer. I am grateful to his four decades in Vancouver, and I very much look forward to the next forty years.

Maestro Akiyama, I hope that Vancouver will always have a place in your heart, and in your musical life.

Sunday Afternoon

What a wonderful way to spend Sunday afternoon, listening to violin sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven. Violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov performed the complete sonatas for piano and violin of Beethoven over the course of a weekend, and I was fortunate to have caught the last concert of the cycle. Three sonatas were featured in this concert – the Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 23, the ever-popular Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 (“Spring”), and the masterful Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96. The collaboration between Faust and Melnikov, solo players as well as chamber musicians, was flawless. The two young artists, equal in technique and musicality, listened and responded wonderfully to each other, and the result was some felicitous music-making.

I was especially taken with how the two players essayed the A Minor Sonata, realizing to perfection the Haydnesque pathos that is so characteristic of early Beethoven. Although only one opus number apart, the Spring sonata brings out the more congenial side of the composer. From the gentle beauty of the opening movement to the joyous finale, Faust and Melnikov gave us a very satisfying realization of this early Beethoven masterpiece.

My personal favourite of all the Beethoven violin and piano sonatas is the last one, the Op. 96 sonata. The reason this work belongs in the top of my personal hit parade is the incredible, other-worldly beauty of the Adagio espressivo movement. The opening bars of the movement represent, for me, the most heavenly music the composer had written. Mr. Melnikov played these opening measures beautifully indeed, and Ms. Faust responded in kind. I did feel that the tempo of the final movement was just a shade careful, thus slightly robbing the music of a kind of spontaneous joy the music calls for. It was, on the whole, a very wonderful realization of this last sonata of Beethoven.

Listening to young artists like Mr. Sudbin, Ms. Faust and Mr. Melnikov, I was reminded again that in our very materialistic world, there are still young people who would respond to this very rewarding, but very difficult calling of becoming musicians. Their talent and their dedication to their art helps us, even if for a short while, forget about the cruelties and iniquities of the “real world” and, in the words of Schober in Schuber’s An die Musik, “Carried me away into a better world.”

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Not to Read This Summer

In a field already over-crowded with books about Gustav Mahler, and with Oxford University Press’ updating of Henry Louis de la Grange’s monumental four-volume biography of Mahler, one wonders why it is necessary to have another general biography of the composer.

The first question that comes to mind when I look at music critic Norman Lebrecht’s new book, Why Mahler? is indeed: Why this book? The book contributes nothing new to the study or knowledge of Mahler, the man or his music. The biographical portion of the book is nothing more than a synopsis – perhaps rehashing is a better word - of more detailed biographies of Mahler. Discussion of the nine symphonies, Das Lied von der Erde, and the songs sheds no new insight into the music.

Worst of all is the chapter, A Question of Interpretation, one that ostensibly introduces worthwhile interpretation of Mahler recordings. Once again, this is nothing more than Mr. Lebrecht irresponsibly airing out his personal biases. A few examples of Mr. Lebrecht’s choice phrases include, “David Oistrakh leads an exemplary Moscow concert in 1967, only to run into a Galina Vishnevskaya squall”, or saying, “Pierre Boulez perversely ignores subjective meaning, giving an analytical presentation of great clarity and no penetration, a dehumanized Mahler…” Even more sweeping are statements from, “Georg Solti does sonic spectaculars of immediate impact and little lasting interest,” to “There are many no-nos in Mahler: These are just a few of the worst.”

Occasionally he drops the name of a famous musician that he knows, such as Leonard Bernstein, that great Mahlerian, as if that fact gives him the legitimacy to be a Mahler expert. According to Lebrecht, some conductors can do no wrong. Apparently conductor Klaus Tennstedt “was an inspiration in all he said and did.” Others are summarily dismissed with off-handed and irresponsible comments like, “Giuseppe Sinopoli, with the Philharmonia, refused to let the Resurrection rise.” A video of a performance by Zubin Mehta’s on top of Mount Masada is considered by Mr. Lebrecht to be, “a sorry piece of political showboating.” Even his good friend Maestro Bernstein did not escape Mr. Lebrecht’s poisoned pen, with the statement, “Bernstein flubbed it, three times”, when discussing recordings of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Reading this book reminds me of Jean Sibelius’ statement admonishing us not to pay attention to the words of music critics, “A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.” It appears that Mr. Lebrecht sees himself as somewhat of an iconoclast. In his other books, The Maestro Myth, Who Killed Classical Music?, and When the Music Stops, the critic sets out to destroy the reputation of some of our generation’s greatest musicians. But while he is effective at destroying, his efforts at contributing to our musical knowledge are often far from satisfactory. When he pretends to be a musical scholar, such as he does here, the result is a book such as Why Mahler? It is interesting that all the inevitable quotes from favourable reviews for the volume are quotes from his fellow critics, taking care of one of their own.

Paper should have been saved for books far more enlightening or inspiring and, if not, at least entertaining. Danielle Steel would have been a better read…

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Agony and Ecstasy of Glenn Gould

I received a recording of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations that had attracted a lot of favourable critical attention a few years back. While I enjoyed the recording and find that it deserves much praise, I gradually find myself yearning to return to Glenn Gould’s final (1981) recording of Bach’s monumental masterpiece.

When Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations, the piece was considered to be quite a rarity, an obscure work more to be admired for its craftsmanship than enjoyed, and one that was only attempted by iconic figures such as Wanda Landowska. Since the release of the Gould recording, many pianists, amateur as well as professional, have wanted to scale the heights of Bach’s thirty variations on the simple Aria. The impact of Gould’s debut album cannot be overestimated. Many people, me included, have compared listening to that recording to a religious, life-changing experience. There are now dozens of recordings of the Goldberg, and sometimes the pianist’s concept can be almost as interesting as Bach’s design. None, however, even approached the emotional and musical heights achieved by Gould.

Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg exists in two forms, a sound recording and a video of the performance. The takes for some of the variations are actually different in the recording and the film. Because there were limits to the quality of video technology in 1981, Gould was a little less picky about the sound for the film than for the recording. According to Kevin Bazzana in his wonderful biography of Gould, Wondrous Strange, he had fun “faking in sequences where he had to pantomime at the keyboard in order to synchronize visual with an existing soundtrack” - an extension of Gould’s idea of “creative cheating.”

I find the filmed version of the Goldberg even more compelling than the recording. Although the visual aspect of a performance probably does not add to its musical impact, there is a synergistic emotional effect in watching and listening to Gould’s playing. In his January 1956 recording of the Goldberg, the playing was effortless, and had a sense of fun, of exhilaration, almost like a kid showing off what he could do on a new bicycle. It was a performance of a young man in a hurry. In comparing the later recording with the earlier, the playing in the 1956 recording now sounds almost skittish and rushed.

In the 1981 performance of the Goldberg, there seems to be a great deal of suffering in the playing – not suffering in the physical sense, but spiritual suffering. When I think of that performance, I could not help but remember the words of Blessed John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, where the then Pontiff commented on the meaning of human suffering, that, “suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself.”

Gould’s performances on the piano almost always possess an intensely spiritual quality. It is, for me, this very quality that makes his music making a moving experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this 1981 performance of the Goldberg. I believe that Gould, in the performance of his life, really did suffer for his art, and the result is a performance that achieves transcendence, and one that borders on the divine. This single performance of the Goldberg, in my view, towers above any musical performance of any work, and makes it one of the most important recordings in the history of the gramophone. In the film, when you watch Gould’s returning to the theme at the end, his face is that of a person that no longer belongs to the physical world. Bach was speaking to us using Gould as the medium. This performance of Bach’s Goldberg was and is Gould’s own agony and ecstasy.

Blessed John Paul II once said, “They try to understand me from outside. But I can only be understood from inside.” Even two decades after Gould’s death, writings on Gould, even from highly intelligent individuals, still allude to his supposed idiosyncrasies. I believe that those people who dwelled upon such external traits of Gould’s are missing the essence of the man and the artist. Perhaps we should focus less on the external and focus on the internal, on Gould’s heart and soul, which he gave every time he touched the keys of the piano. And our world is richer because of it.