Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Czech Nonet

It was an embarrassment of riches last night in Vancouver – the opera presented their second performance of La Bohème, Paul Lewis played a recital of late Schubert sonatas, and the Friends of Chamber Music presented the Czech Nonet in a programme of Wagner, Prokofiev, and Dvořák.

Formed in 1924, the nine players of the Czech Nonet, a combination of wind and string players, play a wide array of repertoire, from the Baroque to the 20th century. Of great interest to me was their performance of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, one of the composer’s most lovable and loving works. I had only heard the work performed by a full orchestra, and so I was very curious to hear this scaled-down version of the piece (the original score was scored for 13 players.)

Siegfried Idyll was beautifully executed by the Nonet. However, I do have a quibble with extremely slow tempo they set for the opening which, to me, went against Wagner’s marking of bewegt – lively, or with motion, roughly translated. For me, the tempo of a piece of music is of secondary importance, as long as the players can maintain the tension within the music. In this case, however, the extremely leisurely opening tempo makes the tempo relationship with the other sections irrelevant. Shortly after the opening, Wagner writes Noch mehr zurückhaltend – still more holding back, which became difficult since the opening tempo was already so “held back.” I feel that Wagner is warning us against the danger of the piece becoming too static, since he fills the pages of this relatively short work with instructions in tempo changes. Only in the final bars did Wagner use the word langsamer – slower. Again, this becomes less meaningful since the opening bars were already played so slowly.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet in A Minor for Oboe, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Bass, Op. 39 shows the composer at his sardonic best. To me, the sense of humour found in this work is almost an extension of the black humour one finds in the scherzo movements of Mahler symphonies; bits of the writing for winds even reminds me of Webern. I remember the delight Prokofiev took in imagining how the players look when they play certain passages. I think the composer would have been pleased and tickled by the performance last night. The players obviously relished the many technical and musical challenges the work offers, and brought out the sarcasm and humour that is inherent in every one of the six-movement work.

After the interval, the entire ensemble returned and essayed Antonin Dvořák’s Serenade in D Minor for winds, cello and double bass, Op. 44. According to the programme notes, Brahms was impressed enough with the work to have recommended it to his friend Joseph Joachim. The charm of the piece is that it does not pretend to be more than what it is – a simple but beautiful piece of music that aims to delight. From the opening march, reminiscent of Mozart’s wind serenades and Schubert’s German dances to the jubilant finale, the players conveyed their love for the score, and performed it with all charm and gusto. The slow movement, marked Andante con moto, brought out especially ravishing playing from the wind instrumentalists.

Considering all the musical events that were available last evening, the concert had a fairly good house. In this difficult economic climate, I do hope that the Friends of Chamber Music, now in their 65th season, will continue to bring Vancouver audiences this purest form of music making.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Elusive Bohème

What is it about Puccini’s La Bohème that makes it so difficult to bring off? Technically, it is certainly less complex than anything by Wagner, or even Verdi. To be sure, it requires very good voices, as any great opera does. But a great performance of La Bohème calls for more than great voices, or beautiful tunes.

Vancouver Opera’s latest production of the perennially and justifiably popular opera again illustrates the difficulties in any performance of this great work. Other than a very moving fourth act, the performance was strangely lacking in passion. All the principals had beautiful voices, the orchestra played competently, and conductor Leslie Dala held everything together - but there was no sense of urgency in the performance. Once when coaching tenor Vinson Cole, Herbert von Karajan told him to sing “as if the police were behind you,” precisely the kind of urgency, an ardent quality in the music making, that the performance lacked. When we add up all the elements of this particular production, it just doesn’t add up to be more than merely the sum of its parts.

In 1982, New York’s Metropolitan Opera put on a new production of La Bohème, directed and designed by Franco Zeffirelli. The performance, televised on Public Television, remains for me, one of the most moving performances of that opera. Even with the extremely poor sound quality, all the singers poured their hearts out and became, a la Stanislavski, the characters they were portraying. Years later, I visited the Metropolitan Opera and saw the same production of the opera with a different cast of singers and a different conductor, and the performance was one of the least inspiring and most lacklustre La Bohème I had seen.

Other than total commitment on the part of the singers, La Bohème requires a conductor that does more than direct traffic, but one that possesses a definite vision of the score. On opening night, Leslie Dala merely accompanied the singers in beautiful singing, rather than drove and inspired everyone on stage and in the pit to give more of themselves than they thought possible. There was a complete lack of tension in the music making – not physical tension, but a tension in the musical fabric.

Once again, singers and instrumentalists were not helped by the dead acoustics of the atrocious Queen Elizabeth Theatre. No matter how hard they are singing or playing, the sound just does not bloom in that dreadful space.

Nancy Hermiston directed the production with her usual thoughtfulness, but I believe that she was somewhat limited by the constraints of the rather small set, and thereby missed many dramatic possibilities in the action.

And so, I will continue to search for that perfect La Bohème. Perhaps one fine evening, when all the stars are aligned correctly, we will see and hear a performance of this magnificent opera when all the elements come together to give us a Bohème that far exceeds the sum of its parts. Perhaps that is asking a lot, but it was and is what Puccini’s great score calls for, and it is what every piece of great music calls for in its performance.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Miraculous Evening

Pianist Ferruccio Busoni once said that, when performing, a musician must, “Find and lose himself at the same time.” I have the feeling that András Schiff was doing exactly that when he played the complete first book of J. S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. After the final chord of the 24th fugue, I felt that to applaud would have been almost rude, or at least an intrusion, since Schiff was obviously so very absorbed in Bach’s sound world. (I cannot help but recall Glenn Gould’s very clever and funny article: Let’s Ban Applause.) For more than two hours, András Schiff was a man who lost himself in Bach’s music, and yet one who saw clearly the way before him. A fine balance indeed.

What can one say after such an evening? To use words like “great”, or “wonderful”, or even “magnificent” seems trite and meaningless after such an experience. One can only say what a privilege it had been to witness the recreation of Bach’s miraculous creations – the first of two books of preludes and fugues in alternating major and minor keys. In the two books of the Well Tempered Clavier, and in the Art of Fugue and The Musical Offering, Bach exploited contrapuntal compositional technique with such mastery, and reached such incredible heights of sophistication and complexity, that he essentially left other composers with nothing more to say on the subject.

András Schiff wrote that, “Bach’s music is not black and white; it’s full of colours.” Certainly, comparing Schiff’s playing of these pieces with that of Glenn Gould’s recordings, Gould’s interpretation is, deliberately so, much more austere - I cannot help but make an association with Gould’s fondness for black and white films. Schiff’s interpretation is certainly full of colours and, for lack of a better word, more “romantic” – not in the sense that he disregards Baroque performance practice, but in that his playing has more of a sense of fantasy. While, for me, Gould’s playing transcends the instrument, Schiff makes no apologies about exploring all the tonal possibilities of the modern piano – and what a beautiful Steinway he was playing on last night! Surely Bach’s compositions leave room for a whole host of varying interpretations, all equally valid.

In his playing, Schiff made it seem like each prelude leads seamlessly into the fugue, which in turn leads into the next set. The pianist has lived with these pieces for a long time, and there was an incredible sense of totality in his playing of the entire set. In the massive B Major fugue, the last of the set, he made it seem as if the entire piece was conceived in one long breath, and he builds the music with a clear sense of the goal. When he reaches the magical B Major chord at the end, there was a feeling of complete satisfaction.

The Vancouver Recital Society has scored a real coup here in having András Schiff give the first concert of his year-long Bach project, where he will perform throughout North America the bulk of Bach’s major solo works – the Well Tempered Clavier, the French Suites, the English Suites, the Partitas, and culminating with a performance of the Goldberg Variations in Carnegie Hall, New York. We must be grateful to Leila Getz, artistic director of the VRS, for bringing us concerts of this calibre, so that we in our little corner of Vancouver can experience the same recitals as audiences in New York, London and Paris.

But in the end, we are left to ponder, in wonder and amazement, at these incredible musical works that Bach left us: Music that elevates the mind, fills the soul, and lifts the spirit. Music that, in the words of Arthur Schnabel, is greater than anyone could ever play. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I am most thankful for having Mr. Schiff in our midst, for making this music come alive with his hand and heart.

And humanity will forever be in your debt, Johann Sebastian Bach.