Saturday, April 16, 2016

Last Evening of the Schubertiade

“The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even far fairer hopes. Franz Schubert lies here.”

Thus wrote poet Grillparzer, words that are on the composer’s grave. Beautiful, yes, but hardly fair, I think.

Even fairer hopes? What was Grillparzer expecting? A composer who wrote over 600 songs, piano sonatas, dances and other shorter piano works, other instrumental sonatas, 9 symphonies, endless chamber music, and even a few operas, all these within a life that spanned 31 years. What “fairer hopes” was he hoping for?

What a week it had been! We were privileged to have heard some of the incredible music Schubert wrote within about a year, the final year of his life.

The final concert of the Vancouver Recital Society’s Schubertiade ended last evening with pianist Jonathan Biss and baritone Randall Scarlata. The concert began with the composer’s Sonata in A major, D. 959, arguably one of the most difficult of all the sonatas, technically. Biss’ playing of the first movement reminded me of Rudolf Serkin, that high priest of German classicism. It was not so much a performance that lingered on the poetry of the music, but one that had a keen sense of the music’s architecture. Other than opening chords that felt a little ponderous, Biss acquitted himself admirably in this challenging and problematic movement. I liked very much the lightness with which he played the right hand arpeggios at mm. 7 to 12, and even more so at mm. 22 to 27. He was very successful in bringing out the lyricism of the songful G major (briefly) theme at m. 65.

The highlight of the performance of the sonata was Biss’ playing of the Andantino movement. In that hauntingly beautiful opening theme, Biss played with an infinite variety of colours, sounds and textures. In the left hand, with a staccato eighth note followed by a two eighth-note slur, the artist gave the impression of a sleepwalker roaming through the forest. In the dramatic middle section, Biss successfully brought out the hallucinatory mood of the music. When the theme eventually returns, he plays it almost like a benediction, and beautifully executed the repeated C-sharps in the right hand.

After the intensity of the second movement, I felt that the Scherzo could have had a bit more lightness and playfulness. The trio, (Un poco piu lento), however, was very successfully done. I agreed with his tempo choice in the songful fourth movement. When the theme reappears in its many guises, Biss manages to give it a slightly different character. The many passages of triplet “accompaniment” in both hands were also beautifully played and shaped. He was in complete control throughout this very extended movement. In the coda, where, within the duration of 8 bars, the composer brings back many aspects the entire work, Biss was, for lack of a better word, fantastic.

As much as I admired Biss’ playing of the sonata, I liked him as a lieder partner even more, when he and baritone Randall Scarlata performed Schwanengesang, D. 957, the composer’s final collection of songs. In these final songs, the composer’s creativity and genius in capturing the essence of each poem is simply astounding. I really appreciated the fact that the lid of the piano was fully opened, making the pianist an absolute equal partner in this act of chamber music. Scarlata sang each song like a master storyteller, changing the character and timbre of his voice to suit the character of each song. In Kriegers Ahnung, Scarlata sang the words, “Von Sehnsucht mir so heiss” almost like a sigh. At the end of the lied, with the phrase, “Herzliebste – gute Nacht”, he sang it pleadingly, and charged the words with meaning. Biss played the opening chords of this same lied with a range of colours in the low register of the piano, effectively and immediately setting the mood. In In der Ferne, pianist and singer masterfully navigated through the many moods of the poem. Particularly memorable were Scarlata’s held long note at the words “Wegen nach!” and the dramatic crescendo to the end with the word “ziehenden”.

I adored the artists’ utterly charming interpretation of the utterly charming Abschied. Biss was particularly effective in his playing of the prancing hoof-steps of the horse. The decrescendo towards the end of the song was particularly evocative in conveying the image of the poet travelling farther and farther away from his origin. Scarlata’s declamatory tone perfectly suited the character of Atlas. I enjoyed Biss’ simplicity in his playing of the folk-like Das Fischermädchen, the solemnity of the opening chords in Am Meer, and the ghostly arpeggios in Die Stadt.

In Der Doppelgänger, Scarlata’s voice took on a dark hue, which effectively highlighted the frightening intensity and desperation of this, one of the composer’s darkness and scariest lieder. Pianist and singer ended the evening’s music with a congenial performance of Die Taubenpost, done with just the right amount of gemütlichkeit.

Franz Schubert was not of this earth. Like Mozart, Schubert was given to us by God, for a short time, to grace us with and to remind us of the beauty of His creation. Like the lives of Schubert and Mozart, this week’s concerts were over far too quickly. But unlike Grillparzer, let us be grateful for what had been given to us by the composer, and by this group of talented artists that graced us with their gifts these past few days.

With music such as what we had heard this week, the world didn’t seem like such a terrible place after all.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Schubertiade continued...

The Vancouver Recital Society’s Schubertiade continued last evening with more heavenly music by Franz Peter Schubert.

The concert opened with what I feel to be the greatest work written for piano, four hands, the composer’s Fantasie in F minor, D. 940, with pianists Inon Barnatan (primo) and Jonathan Biss (secondo). I have long noticed that the main theme of this work shares many similarities to the theme of Haydn’s Variation in F minor, Hob XVII:6, and Barbarina’s aria from Act IV of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro (“L’ho perduta…me meschina!”) Not only are the pieces all in the identical key, the melodic outline as well as affect of the music are all very similar. Living in Vienna, Schubert would have been very aware of music by Mozart and Haydn. Obviously we will never know if he was, consciously or subconsciously, influenced by the aforementioned works.

The two young artists were completely in sync with each other in every aspect of their performance. At the beginning, Biss played the main theme with a simplicity that is quite appealing, and Barnatan used the pedal sparingly, giving the music a clear texture. The pianists gave us a magical pianissimo when the theme returns at m.91 (with triplet accompaniment in the secondo). I appreciated Barnatan’s sense of direction and his lightness in his playing of the chord sequences in the Largo section. The dance-like Allegro vivace section was played with great energy and relish. The section at m.273, marked con delicatezza, was played with incredible lightness and charm. Biss and Barnatan’s pacing and build-up of that incredible fugue beginning at m. 474 were impeccable.

After that incredibly intense first work, Barnatan returned alone and gave us the Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. I find much to admire in his interpretation of this iconic work. In especially the first and second movements, Barnatan was a Furtwängler rather than a Toscanini, giving the music slight shifts in tempo according to its ebb and flow. His playing of the opening bass trill (m. 8) was filled with tension and purpose. He did not overplay the G-flat major theme at m. 20, letting it come out with a beguiling simplicity. The Andante sostenuto movement was also wonderfully done. I thought his voicing of the right hand at the beginning was done especially beautifully. In the A major middle section, Barnatan gave the music a choral sound.

The artist played the Scherzo movement at a terrific clip, but with a lightness that prevented the music from feeling breathless. He took the Trio section at a slightly slower tempo. I personally feel that the two sections should be played at the same tempo, but certainly his interpretation is valid. Barnatan’s playing of the fourth movement was pianistically stunning, and his timing impeccable. I really loved the way he played those off-beat “pizzicato” notes in the left hand while the right hand was playing the rapid broken chords. And he successfully built the music from the first notes to a rousing finish.

I would like to hear the artist play this work again in a decade or so. At this point, I can’t help feeling that, at times, he is slightly over-interpreting the music, trying a little too hard to discover the inner beauties of the score. If he were to let the music speak for itself more, I believe his music making would be even more moving.

After the intermission, Barnatan returned with violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist Gary Hoffman in another Schubertian masterpiece, the Trio in B-flat major, D. 898. It was, overall, a very successful performance. There was unanimity in the interpretation that was noticeable from beginning to end. For me, the most moving was their playing of the Andante un poco mosso movement, as the music came off the most naturally. In the other movements, I again got the feeling that perhaps the performers pushed the music a little too much, which results in an edge in the music making. I think Beilman and Barnatan have brighter, more soloistic sounds, which can be problematic in a chamber music setting. When Beilman played with Lio on Tuesday, there was much more of a sense of ensemble, rather than individuals playing together. Perhaps the fact that the three artists have such radically different sounds did not give the performance a feeling of an organic whole.

To be sure, it was a very exciting performance, and the audience certainly roared its approval at the end. As in the sonata, if the musicians had let the music speak for itself, the music making would have been outstanding.

As I was driving home, I could not help but wonder how it was possible that so much beauty could have been conceived by one mind, especially considering the brevity of time. Any argument that our existence on earth is a mere result of chance, of genetics, has probably not heard the music of Franz Schubert.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

First Schubertiade Evening

What a treat this week will be, to have some of my favourite pieces of music performed within the space of four days! The Vancouver Recital Society’s inspired Schubertiade, featuring the composer’s late works of Franz Schubert, began last night.

And what a start it was! I was particularly anxious to hear pianist Kuok-Wai Lio, who gave a remarkable recital on the Playhouse stage a few seasons back. Mr. Lio did not disappoint last evening. In fact, I believe that he has matured even more artistically since we last heard him. He began the concert with one of Schubert’s most dramatic, most Beethovenian work, the Sonata in C minor, D. 958. There were many magical moments in Lio’s playing of the work, but more than many artists, he really highlighted for me the kinship of Schubert’s instrumental works to his lieder. The spiritual and emotional world of this sonata is really that of Winterreise.

The artist navigated us through the many harmonic changes of the 1st movement with great mastery, making them moving musical moments, as in the transition into E-flat major beginning at m. 27. In those mere two-dozen measures, the composer took us from the desperation of the opening chords to hope, and Lio really highlighted for me that magical transformation. The many pregnant pauses, especially in the first and second movements, were charged with meaning. Also remarkable was how he played the development of the opening movement, bringing out the absolute bleakness of the chromatic line in the left hand, and the restless broken chords in the right. The writing in this section is very much like the piano writing in Erstarrung, the fourth song from Winterreise.

In the second movement, marked Adagio, Schubert, through Lio, brought us into the emotional world of Das Wirtshaus, again from Winterreise. And again, the pianist acted as knowledgeable guide, taking us through the dramatic middle section before bringing us home (briefly) to the wistful opening theme. It was a remarkable journey. In the 4th movement, I was reminded of Schubert’s early masterpiece Erlkönig. As in that earlier song, this movement is once again a wild ride through the forest. In the sudden appearance of the theme in C major at m. 67, Lio’s playing reminded me of the voice of the Erl-king, luring the child into his kingdom of death with his suave words.

Almost as a bit of an emotional relief, the next piece on the programme was the Fantasie in C major for violin and piano, D. 934, the composer’s attempt at virtuoso writing for the two instruments. If this work does not have the same emotional impact as the sonata, it is still a remarkable composition. The incredible collaboration between Lio and violinist Benjamin Beilman was stunning The two artists were together in every nuance of the piece. Although the violin part is slightly flashier, the piano part is much, much more than mere accompaniment. Both Lio and Beilman were at one from beginning to end, and it was a truly satisfying chamber music performance.

I had been really looking forward to the performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D. 956. The performers in this concert were the Doric String Quartet and cellist Gary Hoffman. I believe that in this incredible work, Schubert had already “crossed over” to the other side, and was staring at death in the eye. The performers last night were certainly in sync with the composer from the first note to last. The pacing in all four movements was impeccable. In the first and second movements, the hushed quality of the true pianissimos as well as the many moments of portentous silence were breathtaking. In the second movement - the emotional core of the entire work, the performers created the feeling that the music is only hanging by a thread, and found it difficult even to breathe, lest I break the magic of the moment. The explosion of sound in the third movement, and the almost wild dance of the fourth, although no less incredible musically, serve almost as a catharsis after the almost unbearable emotional intensity of the first two movements.

At a time when the recital season is winding to a close, we are so fortunate to have this mini-chamber music festival. I am certainly looking forward to the continuation of the musical journey in the next two concerts.

Patrick May
April 13, 2o16

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Chopin and Scriabin Preludes

Pianist Dina Yoffe presented the Preludes, Op. 28 of Chopin as well as the Op. 11 Preludes of Alexander Scriabin in her Vancouver recital last evening, under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society. Rather than playing the respective sets of preludes on their own, Yoffe alternated one Prelude by Scriabin, and then one, in the same key, by Chopin. Such originality in programming is certainly not found in many recitals. In some of the pairing of the pieces, the moods of the works match one another. More often than not, each composer has very different inspirations in writing for the same key colour.

In the first Prelude by Scriabin, the composer really emancipated the melody from the tyranny of the bar lines. The work is made up of phrases of four (and up to eight) groups of five eighth notes each, straddling across bar lines. The mood of this particular work matches that of the one by Chopin. Yoffe captured the essence of both works that began her recital. Her playing of this very tricky miniature by Chopin was perhaps slightly cautious in the beginning, but I did not notice any feeling of hesitancy in her playing of the subsequent pieces.

Yoffe beautifully highlighted the colours and shading of the A minor Prelude by Scriabin, so tinged with sorrow, as well as the very subtle shifts in colours and pulse of the almost sinister-sounding one by Chopin. She produced a beautiful tone in her playing of Scriabin’s G major Prelude. In the Chopin Prelude of the same key, I was wishing for a slight bit more leggiermente in the left hand, but she certainly captured the quicksilver feeling of the work.

I was really moved by her deeply felt reading of the pair of Preludes in E minor. In the Chopin, the built-up to the shattering climax at m. 17 was impeccably done. Yoffe’s playing of Scriabin’s D major Prelude had a lovely sense of flow. This is the one work where Chopin’s influence is really apparent, especially harmonically. In the Chopin work of the same key, she beautifully captured the joyful impetuousness of the music. In Scriabin’s B minor Prelude, I appreciated the pianist’s always round and musical tone in this octave-laden work, no matter how big the music was. In the work by Chopin, there was a hushed quality in her playing of this very familiar work, as well as a feeling of quiet relentlessness. I again appreciated the beauty of her left hand in Scriabin’s A major Prelude, as well as how she illuminated the simple beauty of a jewel of the little 16-bar Prelude by Chopin.

The artist captured the rapidly but subtly changing moods in the almost expressionistic Prelude in F-sharp minor by Scriabin. In the horribly difficult Chopin Prelude of the same key, she imparted the inner voices with great clarity, rather than playing them like a harmonic blur. Perhaps there could have been greater build-up to the ff at m. 15, but her playing of this fierce pianistic hurdle was beyond reproach. The pianist’s playing of Scriabin’s E major Prelude had a feeling of quiet eloquence. In the Chopin, her tempo was a little slower than that of many other pianists, but under her hands it worked; further, she chose to emphasize the lyricism rather than grandeur of the music. It is a slightly different take on this work, but certainly a valid interpretation.

It is remarkable that in the 20-measure Prelude in C-sharp minor by Scriabin, there are a total of 11 dynamic indications, from pp to fff. Yoffe was certainly cognizant of every one of the composer’s instructions, from dynamic to tempo shifts, and observed them to the letter. In Chopin’s equally brief Prelude of the same key, she perfectly captured the breathless quality of this music, a work that ended when it had seemingly just begun.

Dina Yoffe lovingly realized the almost Faure-like shifts in harmonies in Scriabin’s Prelude in B major. In Chopin’s euphonious Prelude of the same key, she produced a wonderfully liquid sound in this flowing work.

The first half of the concert ended with the pair of Preludes in G-sharp minor. In the Scriabin, where the only dynamic indication throughout the work is pp, she perfectly realized the sotto voce quality called for by the composer. In the Chopin, I thought that the anger and violence in the music was perhaps overly downplayed, even in the ff climax of m. 37, which made the abrupt ff ending a little less effective.

For the pair of Preludes No. 13, Scriabin writes the music in G-flat major, whereas Chopin writes it in F-sharp major. Even though the enharmonic equivalent keys give the two works slightly different colours, the mood of these works are remarkably similar. In both pieces, Yoffe made the chords in the right hand float, and gave both works a wonderful sense of forward motion. In her playing of the Chopin, there was a beautiful sense of quiet when the theme returns at m. 29. The Preludes in E-flat minor by both composers are dramatic in very different ways – Scriabin by the use of chords and octaves, Chopin by the two hands playing rapidly in unison, like the finale of his Sonata in B-flat minor. I thought that Yoffe’s pedaling in the Chopin was remarkable, magically underpinning the composer’s very dark harmonies.

In the rich-sounding key of D-flat major, Scriabin almost paradoxically gives the music a sparse texture, with the accompaniment making up of just thirds and sixths, in the left hand, then in the right. Yoffe captured the stark beauty of the music very effectively. In the justly famous Prelude in D-flat major by Chopin, the pianist again chose to underplay the dramatic outbursts in the C-sharp minor middle section, but the voicing of the chords was very beautiful.

Scriabin’s Prelude in B-flat minor, marked misterioso, alternates between 5/8 and 4/8. Yoffe deftly captured both the mysterious quality of the music, as well as the constant meter shifts. In the Chopin, she was effective in conveying the relentless, almost obsessive quality of the music. Scriabin’s brief (12 measures) A-flat major Prelude was again filled with tempo and dynamic indications, difficult to observe within such a small canvas. Yoffe managed all these subtle changes in sound and speed beautifully. In Chopin’s Prelude in A-flat major, she maintained the sense of forward motion in the music, and conveyed a sense of buoyancy in the chords.

Yoffe effectively brought out the wildness of the music in Scriabin’s F minor Prelude. In the Chopin pairing, she successfully conveyed the rhetorical nature of the melody, especially in the passages where the two hands play in unison. In Chopin’s E-flat major Prelude, the pianist played with an incredible sense of lightness, and conveyed the image of a bird in flight in this technically challenging work.

In the C minor pairing of the two composers’ Preludes, Yoffe captured the rhapsodic nature of the Scriabin, and gave a deeply affecting reading of the Chopin. I was particularly moved by her playing of the final iteration of the theme, in pp; likewise, she conveyed the gentleness and delicacy of Scriabin’s Prelude in B-flat major. In the Chopin, I was taken by her beautiful playing of the intervals in the left hand, which gave the music a sense of weightlessness. The artist effectively highlighted the flexibility of the right hand melody in Scriabin’s G minor Prelude, as well as the violent contrasts in the Chopin.

There is a gentleness in both composers’ writing of the Prelude in F major, a feeling of blue skies and gentle breezes. For me, Yoffe’s absolutely gorgeous playing of Chopin’s Prelude in F major was the highlight of the evening. Scriabin’s D minor Prelude, very Rachmaninoff-like in its chordal writing, and Chopin’s work in the same key, ended the concert in a dramatic fashion. Her playing of Chopin’s challenging work is note-perfect, which wouldn’t mean very much if the music making were not on an equally high level, which it was.

After the drama of the Preludes, Dina Yoffe graced us with one encore, Chopin’s wistful Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4. I feel that Chopin’s true genius lies in the 50 or so Mazurkas he wrote throughout his life, and her playing of it was, as they say, to the manor born.

Dina Yoffe’s performance last night was pianistically, musically and emotionally satisfying. I am especially grateful to her for giving us the less familiar Preludes of Scriabin, and also to the Vancouver Chopin Society for bringing this remarkable artist back in our midst.