Monday, February 24, 2014

Murray Perahia Visits Vancouver

Pianist Murray Perahia is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, having appeared many times in recitals under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. On a snowy Sunday afternoon, Mr. Perahia played a wonderfully varied programme of works by Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin.

Perahia opened the recital with J. S. Bach’s French Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major, BWV 815. Unlike Andras Schiff, who played Book One of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in his last appearance here, Perahia did not hesitate to use the pedal when playing Bach. Strangely enough, Schiff achieved a greater variety of colours and sounds without the pedal than Perahia did with pedal. Although Perahia did bring out the characteristics of each of the dance movements, the playing seemed rather two-dimensional, and a touch heavy at times.

I had similar reservations about the pianist’s rendition of Beethoven’s justly famous Sonata No. 23, Op. 57, more often referred to as the Appassionata. Perahia’s performance was extremely polished, with quite daring tempo in the final movement. I did miss the great contrast in sound that the music calls for. Perhaps Perahia was trying to present a different view of a sometimes much maligned work, where pianist with more fingers than brains would bang their way through the work with maximum speed and volume. Certainly it was a more intimate view of this very familiar work. Perhaps one day his view of this work will change again. For now, this is an approach that, as much as one respects Perahia’s perspective, does not always work.

After the intermission, Perahia opened the second half of his programme with Robert Schumann’s Papillons, Op. 2. This was a work that Perahia recorded very early on in his career, and his interpretation has now obviously matured. Perahia successfully managed the lighting fast change of mood between one piece to the next, and brought out the beauty and colours in each of the dance-like pieces. Here, the pianist seemed to have been enjoying himself more in these gems of Schumann’s. I enjoyed his performance of this early Schumann work unreservedly.

Rather than referring to Perahia as a Chopin player, I have often thought of him as a pianist that happens also to play Chopin. That said, he has always had interesting things to say about Chopin. The composer’s late Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1, was the first piece in his Chopin group, and Perahia played this work beautifully. He certainly brought out the ethereal beauty of Chopin’s melodic writing, while drawing our attention to the intricacies and complexities of the inner voices. I really loved his pacing of this complex work, as well as how he makes the music float under his finger.

Unlike many of today’s young pianists, who would present one or both sets of Chopin’s Etudes in recital, Perahia, wisely, I think, presented only a small group of Etudes from both sets – Nos. 1 and 5 from the Op. 25 set, and No. 4 from the Op. 10 set. His performance of Op. 25, No. 1, the so-called “Aeolian Harp”, was extremely beautiful, and smooth as silk, as was his playing of the middle section of Op. 25, No. 5, with the stunningly gorgeous melody in the left hand. I thought that his playing of the opening of the same Etude was a little over-pedaled, thus missing the quirkiness of the piano writing.

For the last two works in his programme, Perahia finally threw caution to the wind and gave a take-no-prisoner approach to Chopin’s Etude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 10, No. 4, as well as the Scherzo in B-flat Minor, Op. 31. I do not always agree with Perahia’s tempo transition between sections of this work. It somehow creates an impression of disjointedness, rather than presenting a performance of organic unity so important for Chopin’s music.

After being recalled to the stage by a very enthusiastic audience, Perahia rewarded us with a performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in E-flat Major, Op. 90, No. 2. I felt that the rapid-fingered opening section worked better under Perahia’s hands than the dramatic second section. As with some of the works presented in this recital, I could not help wishing for more colours and a variety of sounds.

Murray Perahia is a sincere artist that always has a viewpoint, a perspective on whatever he plays. Perhaps his analytical approach to the music sometimes gets in the way of spontaneity. I am happy that after the finger injury that forced him to take several sabbaticals from performing, that he seems to be back in full force. I wish him continuing artistic growth, and greater insights into the music he presents to his audience.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

An Evening with the Emersons

It is always wonderful to have the Emerson String Quartet performing in our city, as they did last night in a performance of quartets by Mozart, Bartok and Beethoven.

I was most curious because the distinguished quartet had, since May of 2013, a new cellist joining their ranks. From what I could hear and see last night, Paul Watkins has already become an integral member of the ensemble, adding his own distinctive sound to the voice of the quartet.

Mozart’s Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 428, was written at the height of the composer’s powers. This was one of the six so-called “Haydn quartets”, because Mozart had sent these quartets to the older composer, telling Haydn that they were “the fruits of long and laborious endeavor.” With its opening E-flat octave leap setting the tonality of the work, Mozart frames the three chromatic measures that follow it. According to Charles Rosen, the lower and higher E-flats of the octave, being lower and higher than any of the notes that follow, “imply the resolution of all dissonance within an E flat context” and define the tonal space, with the resolution of the dissonances tracing the fundamental tonic triad of E-flat Major. It was a masterful way of establishing tonality.

From this incredible opening of the quartet, through to the impish and humorous final movement, the Emerson’s brought out all the elegance and zest of the work with the characteristic sound. Time and time again throughout the evening, I was struck by how the individual members of the quartet, each with their own characteristic sound, were able to merge with one another and produce a sound that is larger than the voices of each of the four instruments, the sound of, for lack of a better word, a string quartet as a organic entity.

More than any other 20th century composers, including even Shostakovich, Bartok’s six string quartets significantly extend both the form of the genre as well as the sound that a quartet is capable of producing. The Quartet No. 6, Sz 114, is one of the bleakest pieces of music I have ever heard. Every one of the four movements includes the word “Mesto” (meaning dejected, gloomy, mournful, or sad). The opening of the 1st movement, with its sorrowful theme, reminds me very much of the opening of the composer’s landmark Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. The sound of the four movements goes from utter dejection and sorrow to savage brutality – there is no sunshine at the end of this work. The members of the Emerson String Quartet served as our guides through the shifting moods and sounds of this great work, and shared with us a performance that was simply stunning. At the end of the performance, the audience rewarded the ensemble not with a burst of applause, but with stunned silence – an unusual occurrence in this city – and a sure sign that the audience was touched by this music.

After the interval came a performance of the very family F Major Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1, of Beethoven. Listening to this all-too-familiar work after the Bartok, I could not help but think what a forward-looking piece of music this must have been for the audience of Beethoven’s time, with its huge canvas, as well as the exploitation of the instruments to the limits of their range and capabilities. In fact, Beethoven said to a musician of the time, that this music was not meant for his time, “but for a later age.”

The ensemble, the timing, and the pacing of the quartet were remarkable throughout the performance of this long and complex work. Again, I was struck by the uniformity of the musicians’ concept of the work and sound, and how the music sounded and felt like it was being played by a über-instrument of enormous range, and not by four individual instrumentalists.

Friends who have been long time patrons of the Friends of Chamber Music in Vancouver told me that years ago, there was a waiting list for buying tickets to these concerts. The many empty seats in the auditorium, even for a distinguished ensemble like the Emersons, reminded me how times have changed. My friend said, “If you can’t fill the hall with the Emersons. There is no hope.” With the large number of young people studying music in this city, surely a connection can be made with the local music schools and teachers, in order to begin to cultivate a new audience for chamber music, this purest and most democratic form of music making.

Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music is now celebrating its 66th season. I hope that they will continue to bring us groups like the Emersons for many more years to come.

It is up to us, the audience, to keep this very worthwhile organization alive.

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Saturday, February 8, 2014

New Discovery in the New Year

My first musical discovery in 2014 is a live recording from 2011 of Cuban pianist Jorge Luis Prats. Not only was I unfamiliar with Mr. Prats’s artistry, much of the repertoire he presents in his recital are new discoveries for me.

Jorge Luis Prats won the prestigious Long-Thibaud competition in 1977, a win that should have introduced him to the musical world in the most spectacular way. Because Prats is Cuban, his career became the victim of cold war politics, limiting his performances to (then) Soviet-bloc countries as well as in Mexico, Cuba, and South America. The present recording, made in the beautiful concert hall in Zaragoza, Spain, marks his first major performance in Europe for many years. Listening to this recording prompted the question of why we had to wait so long to hear this major artist. Is this not another reminder that talent is often the last and least of the factors in the “making” of a musical career?

Prats opened his recital with five of Granados’s monumental piano cycle, Goyescas – the pianist left out the Epilogo, but inserted between the fourth and fifth pieces another Granados work, El pelele. Goyescas was of course the composer’s hommage to the great Spanish painter. Granados loved the works of Goya, “for his models, quarrels, his loves and flatteries; those pink and white cheeks against lace and black velvet, those tight-waisted bodies, hands of jasmine and mother-of-pearl resting on jet trinkets. All of these things dazzled and possessed me.”

Just as the works of Goya dazzled Granados, listeners have long been dazzled and moved by Granados’s richly coloured score ever since its premiere in 1914, with its dense and multi-layered piano writing, and its many beguiling melodies. The thickness of the pianistic texture, as well as the almost insurmountable pianistic challenges, presents difficulties for any pianist attempting this music. For me, the greatest challenge lies in presenting this music idiomatically, and with élan and style. Prats’s playing towers above the many challenges presented in the score, and he plays this music as if he was born for it. The pianist brings out the character of every work in the set - the suaveness and gracefulness of the opening Los Requiebros, the quasi-impressionistic Coloquio en la Reja, the high-spirited El Fandango de Candil, the melancholic and tender Quejas Ó La Maya Y El Ruiseñor, for me the emotional core of the entire set, and the death-haunted El Amor Y La Muerte – and highlight for us the beauty inherent in every one of the unique pieces in Granados giant canvas. These are performances that give us not only visceral excitement, which many pianists today are capable of, but moments of great depth, expressiveness, emotion and tenderness. This is piano playing that moves.

I only wonder why the pianist added El pelele in between Quejas Ó La Maya Y El Ruiseñor and El Amor Y La Muerte. For me, the character of El pelele does not match the character of the rest of the pieces in the set. Moreover, there is a strong thematic connection between Quejas Ó La Maya Y El Ruiseñor and El Amor Y La Muerte, as well as an emotional connection between the two works, a connection that is broken by the insertion of an extraneous work in between.

None of the other works in this recital, from Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachiana brasileira No. 4, to the three encores that followed, cast any doubts in my mind that Jorge Luis Prats is a stupendous pianist, and a major artist. In the three encores, the pianist rewards the audience with Carlos Fariñas’s Alta Gracia, Ignacio Cervantes salon-like Danzas cubanas, and Ernesto Lecuona’s famous Malagueña. These are music of a lighter vein, which in many ways augments the challenge for the artist, who must play this music not only convincingly, but also with taste. Prats plays this music with great humour, conviction, taste, and style.

I hope that this beautifully recorded and engineered recording from Decca will serve to raise the consciousness of Jorge Luis Prats in the minds of music lovers. There is no reason why an artist of this caliber should not become a household name in pianistic circles. He certainly deserves to be.