Monday, February 29, 2016

An Evening of Bach

Richard Goode is one of today’s most thoughtful and sincere musicians, always seeking musical truth rather than personal fame or fortune. I have had the good fortune to witness his many wonderful performances. Mr. Goode had been absent from the Vancouver stage for a good many years, and so it was with great anticipation that I attended his solo recital last evening, dedicated entirely to the music of J. S. Bach.

Goode opened both the first and second half of his recital with a Prelude and Fugue from the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. He began his recital with the Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 870. He does not shy away from exploiting (in the best sense of the word) the colouristic potential of the modern piano in Bach, and he employed a very judicious use of pedal. The results were of course music making with a great deal of colour, a very “pianistic” sort of playing. He played the fugue with a keen sense of motion.

The French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816 is a work that is technically within the reach of many piano students. It does, however, take a great musician like Goode to bring out the true beauty and craftsmanship of the piece. After beautifully playing the Allemande, Goode achieved an incredible sense of lightness and buoyancy in the bubbly Courante. I appreciated his choice of tempo in the Sarabande, where every note was like a pearl within a precious necklace. Goode brought out a wonderful feeling of lilt in the famous Gavotte (another work often butchered by many young students), always emphasizing the horizontal line of the music. There was gentleness in Goode’s playing of the Loure, and a great feeling of bounce in the Gigue.

It is quite rare for pianists to include the Sinfonias in a recital programme, as Good did last evening. I personally think that the fifteen Sinfonias are, in terms of compositional craftsmanship and musicality, just as staggering as the Well-Tempered Clavier. That the pieces were played with incredible pianism is probably something that can be assumed, but Goode also successfully brought out the distinct and contrasting characteristic of each individual work. I found particularly memorable the beauty of his sound in the E-flat major and G minor Sinfonias. The final Sinfonia in B minor was given a performance light and fleet fingered performance that took our breath away.

After the interval, the artist began his performance with the Prelude and Fugue in F Major, BWV 880, where he especially brought out the humour of the fugue with its quirky subject.

Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor, BWV 826 is an unusual work, since it does not end with a Gigue, but a boisterous Capriccio. I did miss the sense of space and feeling of high drama in the opening Grave adagio, with its dotted rhythmic figures, as well as a sense of surprise and wonder at the beginning of the Andante section (m. 8). I did think that the transition to the ¾ section was beautifully done. From where I sat, there was some blurring of lines in the Courante, but that could have been a result of the acoustic of the hall rather than a case of over-pedaling. In the deceptively simple Sarabande, Goode beautifully sustained the long melodic lines, as well as the feeling of the walking rhythm. I thought that he had a real sense of the pulse of the music in the Rondeau, something that is so difficult to achieve. The closing Capriccio was played with great energy, and a sense of propulsion, of forward motion. 

I don’t know if I admired Goode’s playing more, or that he managed to play the Italian Concerto, BWV 971 without the aid of the page-turner, an amazing feat in itself! The opening movement had great energy. There could perhaps be greater contrast between the ripieno and the concertino. In the Andante, Goode had a real feeling for the long line of the right hand, and a sense of buoyancy in the left hand. The Presto closing movement was breathtaking, with the most incredible feeling of lightness and energy in the left hand I have heard in a long time.

It was a truly enjoyable evening of great music played by a great pianist. When I hear wonderful Bach playing by pianists like Goode or Andras Schiff, I find it even more difficult to understand the great fame achieved by that other Canadian pianist for her Bach playing, which seems to me very ordinary, even pedestrian. That said, it may seem excessively harsh (and picky) to say that last night’s concert was merely very beautiful, but what I felt was that the artist did not touch on the spiritual dimension of Bach’s music, a sense of reaching into the hereafter. At risk of being accused of asking for the impossible, I do believe that Bach’s music possesses these qualities. I thought Schiff was more successful in reaching beyond the notes when he performed Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier here a few years back. I would love to hear Goode play the same programme many times to really get a sense of what he is trying to achieve with these works.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Glorious Chamber Music

Hearing great soloists play chamber music can be exhilarating. In the case of one of the most celebrated trios in recent history, the Rubinstein-Heifetz-Piatigorsky trio, the personal tension (even dislike) between Rubinstein and Heifetz paradoxically made for some sizzling and white-hot music making.

Last Sunday afternoon, the Tetzlaff Trio, made up of violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, and pianist Lars Vogt, gave us an afternoon of glorious chamber by Schumann, Dvořák and Brahms.

I wasn’t sure if the musicians were getting used to the acoustic of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, but in Schumann’s Piano Trio No 2 in F major, Op. 80, the balance (from where I sat) certainly did not favour the cello. In many parts of the stormy opening movement (Sehr lebhaft), I could hardly hear the cello, even though I saw her working very hard. The piano sound blended very well within the ensemble. Things improved a bit in the slow movement (Mit innigen Ausdruck), where the beautiful cello playing of Tanja Tetzlaff was slightly more prominent. Strangely enough, I had no trouble with the balance of the musicians for the rest of the concert.

The musicians’ performance of Dvořák’s great Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90, nicknamed the “Dumky” was sensational from beginning to end. Once again, Tetzlaff’s playing of the rhapsodic opening (Lento maestoso) was ravishing. In the second dumka, the trio expertly managed the many subtle shifts of colours and moods. The playing of one part, with a beautiful cello line, echoed by the piano and the violin, especially moved me. At the ending of the elegiac fourth dumka, there was a hushed quality in the music making, where there was a magical interplay between members of the trio. Throughout the performance of this great work, the musicians were at one in their interpretation, and were perfectly matched in their musicianship and virtuosity.

I liked the tempo the trio set for the opening movement of Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8, since it keeps the forward momentum of the music, and prevents the music from sounding heavy or grounded. On the whole, there was more warmth in sound from the strings than the piano. In the B section of the scherzo, I thought that the piano chordal theme could be a slight bit more prominent. In the extended cello and piano dialogue in the slow movement, I decided that Tanja Tetzlaff’s relatively more intimate cello sound perhaps accounted for the lack of balance between the instruments in the Schumann that opened the concert.

I was especially impressed by how Lars Vogt, normally a barnstorming virtuoso, subsumed his “soloistic” tendency and blended his playing so wonderfully within the ensemble. Of the three, I felt that Christian Tetzlaff played the most like a soloist, magnificent playing though it was. Tanja Tetzlaff’s sound was, to my ears, the most suitable for the intimacy of chamber music.

Within all the wonderful piano concerts February has to offer, this afternoon of chamber music was the perfect intermezzo. I can’t wait for what promises to be a sublime evening of Bach with Richard Goode next Sunday.

Monday, February 15, 2016


The Vancouver Cantata Singers celebrated Valentine’s Day yesterday with a delightful performance of Johannes Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer, as well as other songs addressing the subjects of love and infatuation. It was my first experience with the performing space of Vancouver’s Orpheum Annex, next to the historic theatre that is the home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. The inside of the hall is somewhat industrial looking, with a narrow balcony wrapped around the sides and back of the hall.

Artistic director and conductor Paula Kremer and the choir began the concert with Victor Young’s beautiful When I fall in love, arranged by choral conductor Cortland Hultberg. I was immediately captivated by the choir’s immaculate blending of the voices as well as its richness of the sound. I have long loved the lyrical interpretation of this song by singer/pianist Nat King Cole, but the VCS certainly gave us a different and very beautiful “take” on this ever-popular song.

The concert continued with four very different songs of love – Simon Carrington’s arrangement of Robert Burns’ O my love is like a red, red rose, Gustav Holst’s arrangement of I love my love, Healy Willan’s setting of Rise up, my love, my fair one (words from the Song of Songs) and Så tag mit hjerte by Gisli Magnússon. The four very different songs truly and fully exploited (in the best sense of the word) the abilities of this choir. The singers in the VCS rose to the musical and technical challenges admirably. Magical moments there were many, like the true pianissimo the choir achieved in O my love is like a red, red rose, and the delicious dissonance at the end of the line, “(H)e flew into her snow-white arms, and thus replied he”, from I love my love.

In the performance of the Liebeslieder Walzer, the VCS was joined by the Bergmann Piano Duo. As much as the hall worked wonderfully well acoustically for voices, the piano came off sounding rather dry and brittle. I was later informed that the lid of the piano had to be closed in order to balance the sound with the choir. I believed that part of the problem was the clarity in texture that the duo pianists were trying to achieve. Perhaps the problem could have been overcome by a more generous use of the pedal. In any event, the choir as well as the two pianists were one in their interpretation of this, Brahms’ most charming score, with just the right hint of schmaltz. The energy that the performers conveyed in the Hungarian-sounding eleventh waltz and the vigorous twelfth waltz was infectious. All in all, it was a performance as rich as the coffee and chocolate torte from Vienna’s Hotel Sacher!

After the interval, pianists Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann played for us a beautiful rendition of One hand, one heart, from what I consider to be Leonard Bernstein’s greatest work, West Side Story. Here the piano sound had a palpable warmth that was somewhat lacking in the Brahms.

The Bernstein work served as a perfect interlude between the Brahms and the other major work of the concert, Canadian composer John Greer’s Liebesleid-Lieder, a 20th century homage to the Brahms work and a more contemporary and, I thought, rather cynical look at love. The choir, the solo singers from the group as well as the Bergmann duo, reveled in and perfectly conveyed the humour so evident in the score. Particularly memorable for me were the warmth and richness of the harmony in Live and love, the dark, almost Brahmsian harmony in Reuben’s children, the mock sentimentality in A very short song, written as a Sarabande. It is an extremely clever score that really captured the deadly humour of the poems, especially the ones penned by Dorothy Parker.

The concert ended with Liebeslied, a brief work by American composer John Corigliano. The work consists of the words “I love you”, tossed back and forth between the different sections of the choir, and with some delicious colouratura flourishes sung by solo singers from the choir.

What a wonderful way to celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day!

The Vancouver Cantata Singers is surely in very good hands under the direction of Paula Kremer, and I look forward to more performances by this talented group of singers.

Dénes Várjon

The parade of great pianists performing in Vancouver continues last Friday evening with a recital by the young Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, this time under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society.

In Haydn’s Sonata in E minor, Hob XVI:34, the artist showed off his considerable pianistic chops. The finger work in the first and third movement was brilliant. Perhaps because of Várjon’s facility, there was almost a feeling of pushing the music a little too much, and therefore in need of a greater sense of repose.  I also felt that the repeats he observed, especially in the third movement, did not display enough of a variety in sound.

I was very moved by his interpretation of Schumann’s great Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17. In the first movement, the pianist very successfully conveyed the passion, the tension, and the sense of yearning that pervades throughout. The brilliant march in the second movement also came off very successfully, and Várjon managed the frighteningly difficult ending with great panache. In the third movement, there was that sense of repose that I thought eluded him in the Haydn. Most interestingly, he played an earlier version of the Fantasie, where Schumann brings back the quote from Beethoven’s An die ferne geliebte, thus highlighting the cyclical nature of his design for the work. I was grateful to Várjon for introducing us to this version of the great work, although I would personally prefer Schumann’s published ending.

We should also be grateful to our young artist for playing six selections from Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, a cycle of 15 short pieces. These are wonderfully evocative and effective pieces that pianists would do well to include in their repertoire. Várjon played these pieces with great feeling and managed to bring out the individual character of each work. I was particularly touched by his heartfelt rendition of two of the works - Good Night! and In Tears.

Várjon’s final offering of the evening was, appropriately, a group of Chopin works. I appreciated his pacing in the Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 38. He played the opening section beautifully, and managed to make the chords in the opening section float. I also liked his sense of direction in the opening, and how he kept the forward motion of the music. The dramatic B section as well as the even more dramatic coda - a stumbling block for many pianists - took our breath away. The two Mazurkas (Op. 67, No. 4 and Op. 24, No. 2) were, for me, less successful. I cannot put it any more specifically than to say that the timing, accents and rubato didn’t feel right. Once again, I was reminded that the music of Chopin, especially the more “Polish” side of the composer, can elude even the greatest artist. The pianist’s playing of the Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1 was lovely. Várjon merely let the music speak for itself, and became more like an observer rather than an active participant. His playing of the justifiably popular Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31, was stunning, even more successful than Murray Perahia’s interpretation when he last played in Vancouver – From the restless opening triplets to the cataclysmic ending, the artist kept us enthralled with his pianism and musicality. There was also a sense of meaning in the many dramatic pauses that occur throughout this music.

Under the urging of an enthusiastic and appreciative audience, the artist rewarded us with an incredibly fleet and light-fingered Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14, by Mendelssohn, with beautifully ardent playing of the opening andante.

The incredible lineup of great pianists continues in two weeks with the incomparable Richard Goode in a recital of the music of Bach. How blessed we are in Vancouver, and what an embarrassment of riches, to have performances within a few weeks by Andras Schiff, Dénes Várjon, and Richard Goode – every one a unique artist and musician with something different to say to us about the infinite variety of our musical canon.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

More Late Sonatas

Sir Andras Schiff played the second (and last) of his recitals in Vancouver this year. The evening was an intense emotional experience – two massive works, Beethoven’s Op. 111 sonata and Schubert’s B-flat major sonata, D. 960 – and the experience left me spiritually elated, though physically drained.

The artist opened his concert with Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat major, Hob XVI:52, the first of his three “London” sonatas. Among the three sonatas, and even among Haydn’s other sonatas, this one is perhaps the largest in scope and in size. In his performance, Schiff’s taste and sense of timing, especially comic timing, were impeccable. The many rapid scale runs in the first movement, in mm. 9 to 10, mm. 17 to 19, for example, were like beautiful strings of pearl. Throughout the sonata, Schiff managed to convey the drama of the music while maintaining an incredible sense of lightness, and never pushing the instrument. The closing of the phrase at m. 26, I thought, was played especially beautifully and elegantly. I loved the sound he evoked with the clock-like theme at mm. 27 to 29, with the pairs of 32nd and 16th notes. The rapid 32nd-note runs for the right hand at mm. 30 to 32 had a wonderful breathless quality and, again, a beguiling lightness. The pianist was masterful in his playing of two brief transitional passages, in the two measures (mm. 44 to 45) that introduce the development, and in the octave passage (mm. 109 to 110) that precede the coda/codetta, Schiff changed the mood and the colour of the music like a sorcerer.

I once again marveled at Schiff’s sense of timing in the Adagio, where he illuminated the beauty of the music for all of us to behold. The obsessive repeated notes that open the third movement, and the prevailing feeling of a wild chase, remind me of the finale of Beethoven’s Sonata in F major, Op. 10, No. 2. Here, Schiff really took us on a roller coaster ride (albeit a brief one) and realized to perfection the youthful and unbuttoned humour of an elderly Haydn.

For his final sonata, Beethoven returns to the key C minor, one that has such special meaning for him. I believe that in spite of its relative brevity, the Sonata in C minor, Op. 111, is one of the composer’s most intensely emotional works. In the opening of the 1st movement, Schiff managed to immediately create a sense of gravity and massiveness. In the rapid 16th-note runs at mm. 23 to 28, and in the rapid 16th-note right hand broken chords with left hand octaves at mm. 58 to 61 (and again at mm. 132 to 138), Schiff really held back and played them quite deliberately, with great depth of sound, giving them a real sense of weight.

In the Arietta that followed, I felt that Schiff played the movement as one long breath, as we also held our breath until the last sounds evaporated. It was a cathartic experience to live through. Schiff’s interpretation of the work last night reminded me of incredible performance of this work by Claudio Arrau who, in the last movement, really took us into another realm. In the trills that dominated the final pages of this sonata, Schiff, like Arrau, also took us into the realm of spiritual communion with the composer.
I appreciated the intermission that followed the Beethoven, although I was wishing for a quiet place to prepare myself for the equally emotionally demanding second half. For the second half, Schiff gave us his view of Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K. 576. Beauty of sound was what struck me about this performance. I believe this is significant because Mozart, who is usually sparing with expressive markings in his score, wrote in this movement the word dolce, twice. Schiff’s shaping of the phrases was impeccable, especially at mm. 41 to 45 and at mm. 121 to 125, where there was palpable warmth emanating from the music. The pianist also made me aware of the contrapuntal intricacies of Mozart’s writing in this movement, especially in the beauty of the writing for the left hand. In the second movement, I especially appreciated the attention Schiff gave to the left hand accompaniment figures, where there was a feeling of weightlessness as well as an understated beauty. The artist’s playing of the concluding Allegretto was witty and charming. What particularly stayed with me was the theme in the left hand, with brief interjections by the right hand, at mm. 26 to 29, and again at mm. 117 to 120.

Schiff’s playing of Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, overwhelmed me. After the opening chorale-like melody, the G-flat major theme was understated (Schubert did write pp, but most pianists play it more prominently), but the otherworldly beauty of this theme really shone through clearly. His pacing throughout the long movement was laudable, and the many pregnant pauses were charged with meaning.

If Schubert was touching death with the slow movement of the A major sonata, Schiff played on Sunday, the slow movement of this sonata must be death itself. The pianist did not play the opening like a dirge, acknowledging Schubert’s indications of andante as well as sostenuto. His voicing of the chords in the opening of the A major section was almost as if choirs of angels were descending from heaven to soothe us.

As if he didn’t want to abruptly dispel the mood of the slow movement, Schiff played the beginning of the scherzo with a true pianissimo. Again the pianist was mindful of Schubert’s indication of con delicatezza. In the fourth movement, I appreciate Schiff’s choice of tempo, which I thought fit the movement properly within the larger scheme of the entire sonata. Under Schiff’s hands, even the very tricky second theme (m. 86), with rapid 16th-notes in the right hand, and 8th-note interjections in the off beat by the left hand, sounded graceful.

With the final chords of the movement that end the work with a pyrrhic victory, the audience stood up to cheer, as did I. In his own notes for the recital, Sir Andras Schiff writes that Schubert’s playing of his own lieder, “transported his listeners to higher spheres and brought tears to their eyes.” I could easily say the same for Schiff’s own performances these last few days.

No amount of sophisticated technology can replace the power of live music making, especially when it is under the hands of a master like Andras Schiff.

Under the urging of the audience, Schiff very graciously played for us the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It was playing with a luminous quality, of fluidity, and flexibility. Could this have been a tantalizing preview of Sir Andras Schiff’s next appearance in our city?