Monday, November 23, 2015

Return of an Old Friend

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, and so it was with pleasure to welcome him back to the stage of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts yesterday afternoon for a thoughtfully put together recital programme.

Andsnes began his recital with a series of short character pieces by Jean Sibelius. The artist commenced his performance with the Kyllikki, Op. 41, a set of three “lyrical scenes”, followed by The Birch and The Spruce, from the Op. 75 “tree” pieces, and three pieces (The Forest Lake, Song in the Forest, and Spring Vision) from the Five Esquisses, Op. 114. These are lovely little vignettes for the piano, quite reminiscent of the Lyric Pieces of Grieg. For a composer not known for his piano works, I was struck by how pianistic these pieces are. Judging from Andsnes’ idiomatic performance yesterday, it appears that these are pieces that pianists would do well to explore. Perhaps the pianist can give us the more characteristically Nordic Sonatine, Op. 67 on his next visit?

In the last few years, Leif Ove Andsnes has been devoting much time and effort towards the music of Beethoven, having performed and recorded all the piano concerti with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The artist’s affinity for the works of Beethoven was evident in his completely satisfactory performance of the Sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3. In the opening Allegro, Andsnes achieved a wonderful sense of motion and direction, and brought out all the rough and tumble sense of humour so characteristic of the composer. This was especially noticeable in the development section of the movement, with the opening theme being played by the left hand (mm. 109 to 113, and mm. 117 to 122). As well, the two pianissimo chords that ended the movement were timed to perfection.

In the scherzo, Andsnes conjured up a real sense of perpetual motion in the music. The opening right hand chords had a real sense of vertical direction, and never felt ponderous. In the devastatingly funny ending of the movement, with unison passagework followed by pianissimo octaves, the pianist’s sense of comic timing was impeccable.

Andsnes played the Menuetto (Moderato e grazioso) and Trio simply but beautifully. I was thankful that he did not monumentalize the music, but highlighted its almost childlike beauty. In the return of the Menuetto, I did notice even greater warmth in the playing. The breathless Presto con fuoco, a deliberate tempest in a teacup, the pianist was in complete pianistic control, which gave the music even more of a breathless quality. The three triumphant final cadences ended the first half of the concert in high spirits.

Throughout the performance of the Beethoven, there was a sense of unity, that the four movements are part of a greater whole. There was also a sense of, for lack of a better word, “rightness” in his chosen tempi for the movements, as well as in the tempo relationship between movements.

The pianist opened his programme after the interval with Claude Debussy’s La Soirée dans Grenade, from Estampes. It was playing of great clarity, without the great splashes of sonorities that many pianists infused this music with. Andsnes’ interpretation is certainly a valid one, reminding me of Pierre Boulez’s statement that he tried to take away the fog and smoke from the music of Debussy. The pianist allowed himself very little leeway in terms of rhythm, which gave this music even more of a relentless quality.

There was some truly stunning piano playing in three Debussy Études that followed. In Pour les degrés chromatiques, the evenness of the pianist’s articulation was eerie. In Pour les arpèges composés, Andsnes’s beautiful sound really highlighted the resonances of the music. In Pour les octaves, there was an impeccable sense of timing in the many shifts of tempo and moods.

Andsnes seemed to have conceived his final group of Chopin works – four seemingly unrelated works - as an integrated set. One can see this by looking at the character of each “movement” of the set, as well as in the key relationship between the pieces. He began his Chopin set with the popular Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, and played it with a lightness and sense of motion that worked perfectly for this music. The artist did not try to “squeeze” every ounce of emotion out of the middle F Minor section, but it was clearly playing that was deeply felt. In the Étude in A-flat Major, from the Trios Nouvelles Etudes, he evoked a sound of great beauty, and he made the right hand chords truly float, highlighting the beautiful harmonies and subtle harmonic changes in the music. In the Nocturne in F Major, Op. 15, No. 1, the shifts between the calm opening and closing and the stormy middle section was very effective. In the Ballade in F Minor, Op. 52, Andsnes played like a guide that was leading us through this incredible musical journey, himself always clearly seeing the way before him. What is more, there was a real sense of organic unity in the massive work, not easily achievable and not often achieved.

After a well-deserved ovation, Andsnes graced us with a stunning and breathtaking performance of yet another Chopin work, the Etude in F Minor, Op. 25, No. 2, playing it at a tempo very close to that indicated by the composer, yet without sacrificing any of the clarity in the right hand triplets.

On the whole, the recital was truly a model of piano playing and music making. Andsnes is playing this particular programme throughout this concert season, and it showed. He had obviously thought about and lived with this music for a long time, and the confidence and maturity he brought to every note yesterday afternoon was truly a gift to Vancouver audiences.

Patrick May

Saturday, October 31, 2015

An Auspicious Debut

Jorge Luis Prats’ reputation precedes him long before his recital debut in Vancouver under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society. I have long admired and enjoyed Prats’ live recording of a recital in Zaragoza for Decca. It was therefore with great anticipation that I attended his recital on yet another wet Vancouver evening.

Prats opens his programme with Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachiana brasileira No. 4, A.264/W.424, the composer’s homage to Bach. Like other great artists, I immediately sense that he conjures a sound from the instrument that captivates, inviting rather than demanding our attention. I appreciate his hushed eloquence in the Preludio of the suite, his captivating playing of the almost jazzy opening of Coral, with its beautiful left hand melody. His beautiful sound comes to the fore again at the beginning of the Aria, with its plaintive melody almost reminiscent of Mussorgsky. Prats’ incredible finger work dazzles us in the colourful and energetic Danza, playing with the dexterity of a Horowitz and the freedom of Art Tatum.

It takes a brave pianist to tackle any part of Isaac Albeniz’s Iberia suite. In his debut recording for Decca, Prats plays the equally challenging Goyescas by Enrique Granados. Indeed, Goyescas is often mentioned together with Iberia as Spain’s greatest contributions to the piano literature, they are vastly different in style as well as substance. Although both monumental masterpieces that tax to the utmost the musical as well as pianistic abilities of anyone, Goyescas nods fondly back to the 19th century whereas Iberia looks very much forward to the harmonic language of Debussy and Ravel.

Prats’ playing of the Iberia set is truly stunning, as well as pianistically honest – no blurring of texture or “cheating” with over-pedaling. The rather thick texture of much of the score came through clearly from beginning to end. The artist has an innate sense and feel for the underlying rhythm of the music, as well as the mood each piece evokes. In Lavapiés, the avalanche of sound that comes out of the instrument is truly overwhelming.

I enjoyed very much Prats’ Chopin set that comes after intermission. In the Fantasy, Op. 49, there is a sense of motion, a directness and dignity that befit the music. In the Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 2, the pianist plays with, to paraphrase Rubinstein, great sentiment but not sentimentality. In the Andante spinato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22, Prats makes the piano sing in the Andante, and makes it dance under his finger in the Polonaise. There is lightness as well as a stylistic correctness in the Polonaise that one does not always hear, even from very good pianists. Even in the connecting passages, for instance, the few pizzicato notes that connect the Andante to the Polonaise, so often neglected by pianists, are charged with meaning. My only minor quibble is that the passagework that leads to the conclusion of the piece is slightly messy. Prats does not always play what the composer indicates on the score, but I would have to say that the he certainly plays with the spirit of Chopin, if not completely the letter.

The pianist ends his recital with his own arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s La Valse. He tells the audience afterwards that in his arrangement, he plays his own arrangement of the work, rather than the composer’s own “simple” transcription, because he is striving to recreate the instruments of the orchestra on the piano. Indeed, his playing of this dark and brooding score once again reminds us of this artist’s supreme pianism, as well as acute musical instincts.

At the conclusion of the Ravel, Prats apologizes to the audience for forgetting to play Ignacio Cervantes’ Danzas cubanas, or Cuban Dances Suite, as indicated on the programme. According to the printed programme, the work is supposed to begin the second half of the concert. I personally am glad that he “forgot” to play this until the end of his recital, because it gives us a release from the unbearable tension he conjures up in La Valse. This set of dances is, I believe, a staple of the pianist’s repertoire, and his desire to share something of his Cuban heritage with audiences. I will only say that his playing of this charming music is as beguiling and stylish as one can hope. A most enjoyable “dessert” to a fabulous meal.

In his chat with the audience before his playing of the Cervantes, as well as in the brief chat we had afterwards, Jorge Luis Prats comes across as a charming and friendly man, utterly devoid of airs, someone we would all enjoy sharing a meal with.

Certainly an auspicious beginning to what promises to be an exciting musical year!

Patrick May

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Art of Programming

If nothing else, Jeremy Denk’s solo recital last Sunday at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts should be credited for originality in programming. I would wager that a couple of the composers whose works he played had never before appeared on a recital programme in Vancouver. From Bach’s dance suite to Schumann’s Carnaval that ends the programme, it appears that the entire programme was infused with the spirit of the dance.

Denk begins his concert with J. S. Bach’s English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808.  The sound he makes on the piano was beautiful, and he played the music with a wonderful sense of rhythm and forward motion, especially in the extended concerto grosso–like Prelude. I did feel that there was a little over-pedaling, thus sacrificing a bit of textual clarity. The pianist also observes all the repeats in the dances. I didn’t, however, feel that there was enough variation in the way the repeats were played to justify their observance.

The rest of the concert’s first half was, in Denk’s words, a sort of “i-Pod shuffle” of different works. The next item on the programme, Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin’s Sunflower Slow Drag, was played with a great deal of charm, and just the right amount of rubato. It did, to me, sounded a little rushed, slightly breathless, reminding me of Joplin’s complaint that most people played his music too quickly. I would personally have liked him to take a little more time with the music, giving it slightly more breathing room.

The pianist then turned back the clock a few centuries, playing William Byrd’s The Passing Measures: the Nynth Pavian from My Ladye Nevelles Booke. Other than Glenn Gould and perhaps Peter Serkin, I cannot really think of any other pianists who would even attempt these virginal pieces on the modern concert grand. This music is notoriously difficult to bring off, as it is up to the artist to capture the audience’s attention with a variety of sounds and colours. I think Denk is successful in moving the music forward as well as holding our attention in this incredibly beautiful and moving music. As in the Bach, I did feel that the music suffered from a lack of clarity.

Igor Stravinsky’s Piano Rag Music is written for and dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, as a thank you to the pianist for his financial assistance during a difficult period in the composer’s life.  In the pianist’s entertaining but highly subjective memoirs My Many Years, he gives an account of his reaction to the work.

It took me four or five readings to understand the meaning of this music. 
It bore out Stravinsky’s indication that it was going to be “the first real piano 
piece.” In his sense, it was just that; but to me it sounded like an exercise for percussion and had nothing to do with any rag music, or with any other 
music in my sense.

Rubinstein, although one of the first of the “modern” pianists and a great champion of contemporary composers, probably finds the “percussiveness” of Stravinsky’s score offensive to his sense of aesthetics of what is, or should be, beautiful, in music.

I believe that Stravinsky would have been highly pleased with Denk’s interpretation of the Piano Rag Music. It is certainly as “wild” and colourful as the composer intended it to be. The pianist’s reading of this music reminds me that Stravinsky is, after all, the composer of Le Sacre du printemps, the work that changed music in the 20th century.

Denk follows Stravinsky’s work with Paul Hindemith’s own “take” on ragtime, in his Ragtime, from the 1922 Suite. Prior to the Suite, the composer had previously experimented with the jazz idiom in his Kammermusik No. 1, where he introduced a foxtrot. In his preface to this Ragtime movement of the score, Hindemith admonishes the pianist with instructions like, “Pay no attention to what you have learned in your piano lessons”, “Play this piece very ferociously, but keep strictly in rhythm like a machine” and, “Regard the piano here as an interesting kind of percussion instrument and treat it accordingly.” Stravinsky would have approved of this work! The pianist certainly takes the composer’s advice to the letter, bringing out (even more than in the Stravinsky) the music’s wildness and savage drive.

Unlike the Joplin that he played earlier, I feel that Denk’s playing of William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag is utterly charming, with a perfect feel for the rhythm and pacing of the music, as well as impeccable taste.

The programme continues in its adventurous vein with Conlon Nancarrow’s Canons for Ursula No. 1, written for legendary American pianist Ursula Oppens. The composer wrote a large number of works for the player piano, thinking that the instrument would be able to bring off even the most complex rhythmic and polyphonic textures. Listening to Denk’s masterful playing of the score, one could easily think that the pianist is (in the best sense of the word) a sort of playing machine. I was stunned at how he manages the incredibly difficult timing and rhythmic shifts in the music. I am very grateful to the artist for introducing us to this score, and to actually playing a work by this elusive composer.

The final work of the first half, Donald Lambert’s arrangement of Wagner’s Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser, is a stride piano “look” at this very familiar music. Those who haven’t heard this music (myself including) would probably find it difficult to imagine how effective and wonderfully irreverent it is. Denk’s playing of this music brings the first half of the recital to a spirited finish.

After the adventurous first half, the two works presented after intermission seem positively traditional. Haydn’s Fantasia in C Major, Hob XVII:4 is a delightful romp through many different keys and surprisingly textual changes. Denk’s playing of this work is certainly breathtaking. Perhaps a marginally slower tempo would have given the music a slight bit more clarity, without really sacrificing the humour within the score. At risk of being accused of splitting hair, I feel that the (left hand) octaves at mm. 193-194 and at mm. 303-304 could have been held longer. In both instances, the subsequent entries appear to come too soon.

Robert Schumann’s perennially beautiful and fresh Carnaval, Op. 9, is Denk’s final offering for the afternoon. The spirit of the dance can certainly be found throughout this early masterpiece.

I find that with musicians who are attracted to highly complex music, there is an emotional ambivalence when they approach more “simple” music. This is the impression I get on Sunday with Denk’s playing of Carnaval. Somehow the sum didn’t add up to be greater than its parts, even with the artist’s incredible pianism.

I was surprised when, at mm. 112 to 113 of the Préamble, he sped up the music rather than observing the composer’s ritenuto. I also feel that stringendo marking at the end of the movement could have been done to greater effect, so that there is more of a build up. The rather quick tempo that Denk takes in the Valse noble robs the music of its, well, nobility and dignity, as well as its tension. In Chiarina, again the rather quick tempo, for me, takes away much of the passionato quality of the music. I do feel that the very fast tempo the pianist adopts for the Valse allemande suits the character of the music. He plays it quicker than many pianists I have heard, which is, for me, faithful to the composer’s molto vivace marking.

Denk’s playing of Eusebius and Chopin is, for me, the highlights of his interpretation of the work. In Eusebius, the pianist coaxes a luminous sound from the instrument, and the music comes off as dreamily as the composer would have wanted. In Chopin, Schumann’s deliciously wicked portrayal of the composer, there is an ardent quality that is somehow missing in much of the other sections of the work; in the repeat, there could have been more tonal variance to give more variety in the sound.

Denk’s pianistic abilities are brought to the fore in Pantalon et Colombine as well as in Paganini. His playing of the Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins is impeccable. I did not think there is enough build up in tension or in sound towards an orgiastic finish to the music. Perhaps it is a lack of a sense of totality that makes this a less than completely satisfactory realization of the score.

In response to the urgings of the audience, Denk graced us with a limpid and beautiful account of the 13th variation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. As in the English Suite that opened the concert, I have the same reservation about over-pedaling, and the repeats just do not have enough variety in interpretation or sound to justify them.

We should all be thankful for Jeremy Denk’s highly varied and original programme. He is obviously a pianist with great pianistic ability, as well as something to say about the music he plays. I hope, in future, to hear him in different repertoire so as to get a more complete picture of his artistry.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Neoclassical Evening

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s parade of guest conductors continued last weekend with another distinguished visitor to the podium. Conductor Jun Märkl led the orchestra in a lovely programme of Prokofiev, Mendelssohn and Strauss. Like Alexander Shelley, Märkl had chosen a programme that called for musicianship rather than virtuosity, and the result was yet another felicitous evening of music-making.

Instead of performing at the orchestra’s home at the Orpheum Theatre, last Friday and Saturday’s concerts were given at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, for me Vancouver’s only acoustically satisfying concert space. I was astonished at how much more alive the orchestra’s sound was in a different concert hall.

The concert began with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25, more famously known as the Classical symphony. Märkl brought out all the zest and humour in this - the composer’s most congenial work. I appreciated how the conductor brought out the inner voices and not often heard details, especially in the wind writing in the first movement. The tempo chosen for the second movement, marked Larghetto, was a little faster than that of many conductors. For me, this gives the music a nice sense of movement, and of flow. The third movement Gavotta was played with great style, and with wonderful lilt. In the final movement, the conductor certainly more than paid lip service to Prokofiev’s indication of molto vivace, and led the musicians in a daring ride through this tricky and difficult music. It was wonderful to watch the smiles on so many of the musicians’ faces. Obviously, they enjoyed playing this music and responded with great spark, and energy. It appears that Märkl had established a good rapport with the musicians of the orchestra.

For me, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, is one of the composer’s most divinely inspired works. Ever since Jasha Heifetz elevated the standards of violin playing in the 20th century, it is amazing how many distinguished violinists we have in our midst today. I was very moved by Karen Gomyo’s playing of this beautiful and impassioned work. The young violinist has a very emotive sound, but one tempered by discipline and restraint. I had previously admired Jun Märkl’s reading of Chopin’s two piano concerti with Ingrid Fliter in a recent recording. Last Friday’s concert confirmed in my mind what a sensitive collaborator this conductor is. To my ears, some of the climatic moments were slightly too bright, but that could have been because of the proximity of our seats to the stage. I was particularly taken with how Märkl voiced the chord at mm. 127 to 130, when the orchestra falls into a hush after the statement of the opening theme. Collaboration between soloist and conductor was impeccable.

Richard Strauss’ Le Bourgeois gentilhomme Suite, Op. 60, is not a work that we hear often. I was amazed at Strauss’ mastery in orchestration, making a relatively small ensemble (37 players according to the notes) sound like a full symphonic body. Originally written as incidental music to a play by Molière, the play itself did not succeed with the audience, but Strauss extracted parts of the score into the present suite. According to Norman del Mar, author of the three-volume biography of the composer, this nine-movement suite “ranks as one of his finest works.” Märkl clearly saw the greatness in this score, and guided the orchestra in a reading that is alert, elegant, and always beautiful. The many dance movements, including the second movement menuett, the Dance of the Tailors (Movement 4), The Menuett of Lully (Movement 5), and the sixth movement courante, were particularly beguiling. The sparkling final movement (The Dinner), where Strauss liberally “stole” from his own works as well as that of Wagner, the orchestra responded to Märkl’s directions, and played brilliantly. Concertmaster Dale Barltrop and Principal Cellist Ariel Barnes shone in their many solos throughout the score, and the always excellent winds of the orchestra stood out with their wonderful playing.

It was interesting to watch two guest conductors within a week between the two concerts. Both Alexander Shelley and Jun Märkl brought their unique personality and talents to the podium.

Compared to Shelley, Märkl is a more dramatic conductor, in both his gestures as well as the colours he brought out of the orchestra. In different ways, I was very happy with the music making of the orchestra under both conductors. With such outstanding candidates coming for their “auditions” with the orchestra, the future of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra should be in good hands.

Let us hope for a conductor that will take this orchestra into a new level of excellence and prominence.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Symphonic Debut

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is in search of a new music director, which probably explains why we have been having more than our usual share of guest conductors. Last Saturday, conductor Alexander Shelley (son of the pianist Howard Shelley) made his debut with the orchestra. Shelley had been appointed Music Director-designate of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, succeeding Pinchas Zukerman.

The concert opened with Alexina Louie’s Infinite Sky with Birds. Ms. Louie was on hand to speak about the inspiration behind her work: “The idea of the sights of hundreds of birds taking flight and the kind of exhilaration that I feel when I see that.” I once heard it said that great music should evoke and not describe. Ms. Louie, one of Canada’s most original and innovative composers, certainly evoked the sight of birds in flight. The music is very colourful, and exploitative (in the best sense of the word) the resources of the orchestra. Shelley conducted with authority and led the musicians with clarity through the dense and complex score. Towards the end of the music, there was a moment, with rushing strings, evoking the sight of the flock of birds taking flight, which was especially memorable, and gripping. Ms. Louie’s score is one that elicits an emotional response and involvement from the audience.

It is a wonderful coincidence that both of Ravel’s piano concerti should be presented within the space of a few weeks. In this concert, Canada’s Janina Fialkowska performed the composer’s Jazz-tinged, Gershwin-influenced Piano Concerto in G Major. Whenever I hear Fialkowska, I often think of Arthur Rubinstein, her mentor. Like Rubinstein, Fialkowska plays this quintessentially French score with greater clarity than a lot of other pianists. Like Rubinstein, who also plays French music with much clarity and more “meat” than many French pianists, this makes for a very refreshing way to hear this familiar music.

The jewel in the crown is, of course, the slow movement, Adagio assai. Fialkowska played the opening of this movement, with its unusually long solo for the instrument, with great feeling. This opening gives one the feeling (as in the slow movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto) of time standing still, but Fialkowska managed to maintain the impetus of the music so that the musical line does not come to a stand still. The third movement was done with as much flair and panache that the music calls for. Shelley proved an able and sympathetic partner to Fialkowska, and the orchestra, with all the beautiful woodwind solos, sounded sensational. I could not help thinking how much Mr. Rubinstein would have enjoyed Ms. Fialkowska’s performance.

I appreciated the fact that Shelley chose a programme with a low “wow” factor for his debut. The second half of the concert consisted of Franz Schubert’s charming Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485. Throughout the evening, but especially in this symphony, I appreciated Shelley’s sense of direction in the music, both horizontally and vertically, his sense of the musical line, and the beautiful phrasing he received from the orchestra.

Mr. Shelley is not an acrobatic conductor, but guided the musicians through the music with clear gestures, and with an invitation to listen to each other.

It was certainly a most satisfying evening, a beautiful evening of great music being played beautifully, and with joy.