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.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Art of the Encore

Although only 23 years old, pianist Nikolay Khozyaninov already has an impressive string of competition wins. And so it was with great anticipation that I attended his recital last Friday evening.

Recent performers for the Vancouver Chopin Society have not been concentrating so much on the music by the society’s namesake, but Khozyaninov gave us an entire first half devoted to music by Chopin. The justifiably famous Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2 was taken at an unusually slow tempo. But tempo isn’t really the issue here, an artist can take any tempo as long as he or she can sustain and maintain the tensions within the music. This was not the case in Khozyaninov’s playing of this particular nocturne. At measure 6, with an ascending series of notes in the right hand, the pianist inserted a significant ritard where Chopin indicated only crescendo, which led to, so early on in the piece, an interruption in the impetus of the music. Perhaps he was dwelling too much on the beauty of the music, to the detriment of the musical flow.

The Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1 worked better under Khozyaninov’s hands. The opening of the work, with quietly flowing left hand broken chords, and the haunting right hand melody, were realized beautifully. I did feel that the climactic, mazurka-like, section from measures 64 to 80, lacked nobility. The young artist opened the great Barcarolle, Op. 60 with a great sense of space. There was, however, not enough of a build-up towards the great climax at measure 93, that when the moment did arrive, it was almost like an anti-climax.

Khozyaninov followed this great work with three waltzes by Chopin. For me, the Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2 was the most successful. The artist’s playing brought out the simple beauty, and slightly melancholic character of the work. In the great Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, I took issue with the speeding up at the B section of the piece (not indicated at all by the composer), which changed the pulse of the music. After the Più lento section, Chopin did write Più mosso for the reappearance of the B theme, but this is only in relation to the slower tempo of the Più lento, and not a license to speed up the first time the B theme appears. The Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 69, No. 1 is, for me, a miniature tone poem for piano. I felt that the pianist missed the shifting colours and moods that the music takes us. I would perhaps suggest that he listens to Alfred Cortot’s incredible interpretation of this work, not to imitate, but to learn from it.

In the Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38, the dramatic sections worked much better than the quieter chordal sections as the chords did not float and lacked a sense of direction as well as repose.

It seems incredible that this must have been the fourth or fifth time this season that I heard Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110. This is not a complaint, since a work like the Op. 110 can have a wide range of interpretations. On Friday, there were things that were outstanding, such as in the rhythmically tricky second movement (“Allegro molto”) as well as a beautifully realized Adagio ma non troppo movement. In the latter, Khozyaninov brought out the depth and pathos of the music as well as a sense of time standing still, especially in the many pregnant pauses in the Recitativo (measure 4). In the Klagender Gesang (Arioso dolente) - the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote, Khozyaninov played with great beauty and depth of feeling, but without sacrificing the impetus of the music. I did, however, feel that in the first movement, the left hand accompaniment to the first theme was rather wooden sounding, as were the left hand chords at measures 13 to 18, and at 71 to 75. Compared to Paul Lewis’ magisterial playing of the fugue in the final movement, only a week ago, Khozyaninov again fell short in the very slow build up towards the radiant A-flat major chord that ends the piece.

I was grateful to the pianist for playing Tchaikovsky’s Original Theme and Variations in F major, Op. 19. The young artist brought out the unique character and charm of each variation of this set of theme and twelve variations.

The pianist then proceeded to tackle Feux follets (Allegretto), the fifth of Franz Liszt’s 12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante and, according to many, most difficult of the set. I sat stunned as I heard the pianist played this work with great aplomb, flair, and the most incredible lightness and agility. It was a truly breathtaking pianistic feat. More impressive piano playing awaited us in the final work of the recital, the Liszt-Busoni Fantasy on Two Themes from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The two themes from the opera are, specifically, Cherubino’s beautiful Voi che sapete and Figaro’s mocking Non più andrai. Not knowing the work, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the work was Busoni, and how much was Liszt. As expected, it was a barnburner of an interpretation, where Khozyaninov pulled out all his pianistic stops. It was truly ingenious how the composer (composers?) merged the two themes in this staggeringly difficult work.

With such incendiary playing in these final works, it was no surprise that the audience clamored for more. Khozyaninov rewarded us with four encores. In the Waltz in E minor, Oeuvre posthume, I felt that his playing of this particular Chopin waltz was far too skittish, and missed the noble beauty of the E major section. Busoni’s Fantasy on Carmen once again brought out the best in this young man, who relished in the colours, not to mention pianistic hurdles, of this complex music. To my ears, he gave us his most musical and sensitive playing for the evening in Debussy’s Clair de lune, reminding us once again that this piece is popular because it is truly beautiful. I was rather hoping to leave the recital with the delicate sounds of the Debussy. I was therefore disappointed that he ended his string of encores with Strauss-Rosenthal's Fantasy on themes from Der Fledermaus. Yes, the playing was brilliant, and it was clear that the pianist was having fun, but I think there should only be so much virtuosic playing in one recital. After a while, the pianistic feats began to wear thin, and at the end of the experience, I longed for silence. After the recital, I was convinced more than ever that any artist should know when to quit.

I am certain that Nikolay Khozyaninov is a pianist of incredible abilities. I believe time will tell if he truly becomes an artist as well. I hope that his busy career won’t hamper him from continuing to study and think about music.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Glorious Finale

I cannot think of a better programme to end the Vancouver Recital Society’s 2014-2015 season than the last three sonatas of Beethoven, especially when the artist is Paul Lewis.

Lewis has, by now, lived with these towering works for a long time, and it showed. From the first, deceptively simple, notes of the Op. 109, to the ethereal ending of the Op. 111, the performances revealed Lewis’ deep love and regard for these works, as well as a command of the overall structure and architecture of these elusive works that comes only with time.

Other than the emotional associations we have toward these works, it is important to remember that by the end of his life, Beethoven was no longer performing as a virtuoso pianist. Indeed, there are many of the early and middle period sonatas that are more technically demanding than these three last sonatas. What he wrote during this last period of his life, be it the last string quartets or the piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, or the Op. 119 Bagatelles, he wrote in spite of, and not for, the medium. That said, it of course takes a supreme artist and pianist to overcome the technical hurdles in these works. Lewis’ performance last night succeeded in making me forget that someone was playing the piano, and I can think of no higher compliment.

From the unassuming opening of the Op. 109 sonata, with its rippling broken chords, Paul Lewis was in complete control of all the elements and details of the score, yet without losing sight of the complete picture. In the third movement, with the heavenly theme, travelling through the incredible series of variations, and then back to the main theme, Lewis played as if, from the first chord of the theme, he clearly saw the way back to the main theme without losing his way. When the theme did return, one felt as if one had been traveling on an incredible journey with the artist.

For me, the high point of the first half of the concert was how Lewis built the last movement of the Op. 110 sonata, from its simple, unassuming opening with the few notes of the fugue subject, and slowly, gradually the music soared and soared until it reached the summit, with the triumphant A-flat chord. To my ears, it was the most well thought out interpretation of this difficult movement, yet without sacrificing spontaneity.

Lewis’ playing of the 1st movement of the Op. 111 sonata was, in a word, sweeping, as if there was not a single moment of self-doubt. I have the feeling that when Beethoven wrote these sonatas, he was already speaking to us from another world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 2nd and final movement, where I get the sense that the music is taking us away from physical reality, and that we are travelling to the realm of the purely spiritual. The playing in this movement was simply glorious, especially in the pages of trills in the final pages, and with the theme tottering just on the edge, delicate and fragile. It is, to me, the most incredible closing in all of music. Lewis succeeded in conveying the otherworldly beauty of this music. At the end of the performance, I felt that it would almost have been rude to applaud.

All in all, an auspicious end to what had been a great season of live music. Now that Paul Lewis had shared with us so much of his thoughts on Beethoven, perhaps Leila Getz would see to it that he returns with further thoughts on the music of Franz Schubert, another composer that has been occupying the time and thoughts of Paul Lewis.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Return Visit by a Master Musician

There is, to me, something pleasurable about an orchestra tuning before a concert - it is a signal that great music is to be played. When one knows that the person leading the concert is a consummate musician and a master conductor, that pleasure is doubled.

Conductor Kazuyoshi Akiyama made one of his annual returns to Vancouver last night in a programme of Sibelius and Beethoven, plus a world premiere of a work by composer Marcus Goddard.

Taaliniq, the new work by Goddard was, according to the composer’s own programme notes, inspired by Inuit throat singing and folk melodies. Not being an aficionado of Inuit throat singing, I would grant the composer the benefit of the doubt. On first hearing, the work shows Goddard to be a composer of not just great skill, but imagination as well. The work is pretty much a miniature concerto for orchestra, exploiting fully the colours and texture of a full symphony orchestra. Particularly memorable was a pensive and beautiful middle section for strings. The composer could not have found a more ideal champion than Akiyama, who brought out all the kaleidoscopic colours of the opening and closing sections, and the beauty of the string writing in the center of this brief work.

I have always thought that Sibelius’ Nordic soundscape is very suited to our Canadian imagination. In the composer’s Violin Concerto, Ray Chen had chosen a difficult work to make his debut with. On top of its monumental technical difficulties, the violin part is so interwoven into the orchestral texture, that it is hard for a soloist to impress, in the traditional sense of the word, an unfamiliar audience. Yes, the violin writing is brilliant, but it is subsumed within the sounds of the orchestra. I have heard it said that it takes a virtuoso to be more than a virtuoso. A virtuoso Ray Chen certainly is, with his beautiful, sweet tone in the high register of the instrument, and a luscious sound in the lower register that particularly suited the Sibelius. Chen and Akiyama succeeded in evoking the bleak, grey colours of the music, especially in the slow movement. Akiyama is one of the few conductors I know that makes me so aware of the pulse, and not just the beat, of the music, so crucial in this Sibelius work.

In one of Leonard Bernstein’s groundbreaking television programmes, the conductor began an episode addressing rhythm in music with the image of a human heart beating on the screen. Gradually the image dissolves into the orchestra playing from the opening of the vivace section in the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Indeed, rhythm plays such an important role throughout this familiar work by the master symphonist from Bonn. From the masterful transition from the poco sostenuto to the vivace in the first movement, to the beautiful string tone Akiyama drew in the second movement, to the incredible lightness of the third movement, and to the incredible energy the conductor summoned in the breathless fourth movement, there was nothing to suggest that it was anything less than a great performance.

To watch Kazuyoshi Akiyama conduct is to witness poetry in motion.

The conductor’s baton technique, especially his incredibly expressive left hand, is such that no orchestra, I wager, could mistake his intentions. He is not a rigid tempo man, but allows the music to breath, and always finds the pulse of the music behind the notes. Although he does not look it, Mr. Akiyama is now a man in his seventies. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra should try and continue to claim his time and talent, and that he would always retain his affection for the city and the orchestra to return regularly.