Friday, April 19, 2013

Simon Trpčeski

After their presentation of the Doric String Quartet last Sunday, the Vancouver Recital Society brought to the stage of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts the young Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski.

I had first heard Mr. Trpčeski years ago, when he played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a hot and humid July evening, as I remember it, and the hall’s air conditioning broke down the day of the performance. But that did not prevent the pianist from giving a sizzling – pun quite intended – performance of the old warhorse. Since that time, Trpčeski has been going from strength to strength, playing with the most prestigious orchestras and in major music centres the world over.
Last night, in an unseasonably cold and wet evening in Vancouver, he opened his recital with Franz Schubert charming 16 German Dances, D. 783. The relative lack of major technical hurdles in these miniatures belies the depth behind the music, and the difficulty in bringing them across with conviction. As with the waltzes and mazurkas of Chopin, these Schubert dances are really dances for the soul. Trpčeski brought out the character and lilt in each dance in his utterly musical playing, mustering all the gemütlichkeit inherent in every note of this music.
In complete contrast, Trpčeski rounded out the first half of his programme with the same composer’s Fantasie in C Major, D. 760, more popularly known as the Wanderer Fantasy. If the German Dances represent the intimate face of Schubert’s music, the Wanderer Fantasy surely reveals the virtuosic, the Lisztian, even the demonic side. Technically probably the most difficult of Schubert’s solo pianistic output, the work calls for both strength and delicacy, both brains and brawn. Trpčeski possesses both qualities in abundance.

I was surprised that he almost underplayed the dramatic opening chords, but then I realized that he was pacing the work, and saving the “fireworks” for later on. The transition from the opening of the work to the sombre and dark slow Adagio was impeccably handled, as was the transition between the Presto and the final Allegro. I find his playing of the beginning of the final fugue particularly arresting. The opening chords of the great Adagio was played magnificently – he voiced the chords to give them the darkest possible tone colours - as was the rest of the movement, and again reminded me of Arthur Rubinstein’s statement, that Schubert was the only composer that could stare directly at death.The second half of Trpčeski’s recital was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt, beginning with the composer’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543, originally written for the organ. Last season, we had the incredible recital by Andras Schiff where he played Book One of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, so it was particularly fascinating to hear Bach through the 19th century eyes of Franz Liszt. This was thoroughly romantic Bach, exploiting, in the best sense of the word, all the resources of the piano. A master transcriber, Liszt was able to evoke the sound of the organ on the piano, and what a sound it was under the hands of Trpčeski!
Trpčeski followed with three of Liszt’s Soirées de Vienne, Valses-Caprices d’aprés Schubert, S. 427. Taking off from the various dances for piano that Schubert wrote, including three from the set of dances we heard at the beginning of the evening, Liszt wrote miniature tone poems for the piano using these dance themes. Trpčeski can create a beguiling sound on the piano, and this sound suited these pieces perfectly. At the end of the last piece of the set (No. 6 in A Minor, the same piece played by Vladimir Horowitz in his now legendary Moscow recital), the audience chuckled with delight before rewarding the pianist with warm applause. It is quite telling to realize that Schubert’s relative modest little dances for keyboard should serve as raw material for Liszt, as well as for Maurice Ravel in the 20th century in his masterpiece, the Valses nobles et sentimentales.
The final piece on the programme – the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp Minor – is so famous that it has been played by pianists from Liberace and Victor Borge on one end to Horowitz on the other end of the pianistic spectrum, and almost everyone in between. Trpčeski certainly played the famous work with all the glitter and excitement it calls for, but never losing sight of bringing across the character inherent in each unique section. Never was beauty and depth of sound sacrificed for surface excitement, and never had the gypsy influence on this music been made clearer than in last night’s performance.

After thunderous applause and a well-deserved ovation, Trpčeski rewarded the audience with three encores – Schubert Moment Musical in F Minor, Chopin’s Prelude in D Minor, the last of his set of twenty-four, and Schubert’s beautiful Ständchen, as transcribed by Liszt. Once again, every one of these works was played as it should be. I was particularly moved by the quiet eloquence that Trpčeski afforded the Schubert / Liszt Ständchen. For me, that final piece captured the mood of the entire evening, and sent the audience home elevated by the beauty of the music played.
I have now heard Simon Trpčeski with orchestra and as a recitalist. Next season, he will once again grace the Vancouver stage with his presence, in a chamber music recital with cellist Daniel Müller-Schott. Doubtless this will give us another opportunity to enjoy another facet of the talents of this young artist.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On Hearing the Doric String Quartet

A performance by a string quartet is unusual fare for the Vancouver Recital Society, so when I was given tickets to a performance by Britain’s Doric String Quartet, I went with more than my unusual degree of anticipation for a musical performance. The quartet was only formed in 1998, and the musicians – violinists Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone, violist Simon Tandree, and cellist John Myerscough, who also acted as (eloquent) spokesman for the group – look like they are perhaps in their early thirties.

From the first notes of Haydn’s G minor quartet, Op. 20, No. 3, I felt that we were in for a very special afternoon. I can think of no higher compliment than to say that this group of young musicians produce a sound and play with a degree of maturity that reminded me of great quartets like the now disbanded Amadeus String Quartet.

In addition to the Haydn, the quartet essayed Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 34, the last of the composer’s three quartets, and Schubert String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, more famously known as Death and the Maiden.

Part of what makes a performance great is what goes on in between the notes. In the performance of the quartet yesterday, there was a magical quality in the silences, the spaces in between notes, and in between musical ideas. The musicians were helped by the wonderful acoustics of the Chan Centre of the Performing Arts, which gives the string sound a bloom, an “after-sound” that would have been missing in Vancouver’s other performing spaces.

I appreciated also the musicians’ choice of tempi in all three quartets, especially the tempo relationship between the movements of the three works performed. In the first and final movements of the Schubert, the quartet played it at a more than usually quick tempo, making the counterpoint extremely exciting. However, within the context of the work, these tempi, for lack of a better word, “worked”.

Of particular interest to me was the quartet’s performance of Korngold’s third quartet. An astonishing child prodigy, Korngold composed, in his early teens, works that were admired by Gustav Mahler. Forced into exile to Hollywood, the composer became the first of generations of film composers, a sort of John Williams of his day - but musically far more advanced and sophisticated. Written between 1944 to1945 and dedicated to conductor Bruno Walter, the quartet borrows significantly from the composer’s film music. Korngold’s last quartet alternates between passages of a post-Wagnerian chromaticism to lyrical and beautiful, and unapologetically diatonic melodies.

Korngold’s gorgeous violin concerto has a new found popularity in recent years. Perhaps the quartet’s magnificent performance of the composer’s quartets, both yesterday and in their recording, will lead to greater interest in his chamber music works.

Perhaps some members of the audience would have preferred the performance to have more of an “edge”. For me, the beauty, the quality of the sound made by these four musicians was what captured my attention yesterday afternoon. It would be interesting to hear this quartet playing the quartets of Shostakovich and Bartok, works that sometimes call for a bit of harshness in the sound.

Once again, we must be grateful to Leila Getz, artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society, for bringing the Doric String Quartet to Vancouver for their Canadian debut. As for me, I would travel anywhere to hear this talented young ensemble again in a wide variety of repertoire, and in the very near future.