Saturday, May 21, 2016

An Unexpected Debut

It is easy to forget that musicians, like the rest of us, labour under vicissitudes of life such as illness or fatigue. When pianist Nelson Friere cancelled his North American tour on the advice of his physician, the Vancouver Chopin Society scrambled to find a suitable replacement for him. They, and we, the concert audience, were extremely fortunate to have been able to secure the services of Georgijs Osokins, a young Latvian pianist who created quite a stir at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw.

In my thirty plus years of concert attendance in the wilds of Vancouver, I could count perhaps a handful of concerts where a young artist created an overwhelming first impression. After last evening’s performance, I am happy to add Mr. Osokins to that list.

Osokins began his performance with the very intimate Sonata in D minor, L. 108, by Domenico Scarlatti. With the first notes, I was immediately captivated by his crystalline sound, the range of colours, and the spaciousness of his playing. This young artist dared to take the time to allow the music to emerge, never was there a sense of anything forced or artificial. While his playing was filled with personality, there was always a feeling of naturalness in his music making. The audience must have felt it too, because there was no applause at the end to break the spell of the music, allowing him to launch immediately into his next piece.

It is perhaps a curious coincidence that Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110, had been part of at least half a dozen recitals in the last couple of seasons. Osokins’ interpretation was noteworthy, and could be counted as one of the most memorable. With the quiet opening chords of this great work, he immediately conjured up a reverential atmosphere that set the tone for the entire performance. His playing of that opening, with the sublime melody that emerges at m. 5, was richly detailed and intensely musical. I liked the clarity he achieved with his lightly pedaled and fleet fingered playing of the broken chord passage (m. 12 to 19). His tempo relationship between the first and second movement was, to me, most logical. He voiced the chords beautifully in the beginning of the second movement, and his timing of the left hand off beat notes in the middle section (m. 40 to 95) was impeccable, highlighting the quirky humour of the composer’s late works.

Osokins really got into and brought out the emotional core of the Adagio ma non troppo movement, no small achievement for a young artist. Once again, the reverential atmosphere returned with even greater intensity. Beethoven must have thought a great deal about this movement since, within a mere 26 measures, he lavished the music with more than a dozen tempo and interpretative markings. Osokins really conveyed through his playing the unbearable inner sorrow of the Arioso dolente theme (m. 9). In the concluding fuga, this artist seemed to be able to allow the music to emerge in layers, as if he was peeling off one layer of sound to reveal another. The clarity of lines he was able to achieve within this complex fugue reminded me of the playing of Glenn Gould. In this age when every young deemed himself or herself worthy of playing late Beethoven, it is not easy to find an interpretation that gives new meaning to this music, but he did on Thursday evening. Osokins made me feel that he was guiding us through an incredible journey of sound, and succeeded in letting us hear this familiar music with freshness and incredible musicality.

The intimacy of the recital’s first half continued with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G major, Op. 32, No. 5. In conversation with Mr. Osokins the day after his recital, I discovered that Rachmaninoff is this young man’s pianistic hero. His playing of this prelude certainly showed the extent of his affection for the composer’s music as well. He played the melody with a gorgeous liquid sound, and he somehow made the music float into our ears. The timing of the return to the main theme at m. 28 was impeccable, and he infused this return of the opening theme with even greater beauty and meaning.

Before the interval, Osokins concluded with Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 68, “Black Mass”. Once again, it was a masterful performance of this complex score, and he brought out the kaleidoscopic range of sound colours called for by the composer, as well as the sinister atmosphere that pervades throughout.

From the little bit that I read about Georgijs Osokins, he was deemed too much of a revolutionary to have won the top prizes at the Chopin competition. Yet, throughout the evening, I never once felt that his interpretations were in any way idiosyncratic. Original and full of personality, to be sure, but never did I feel that he was trying to play differently for the sake of being different. His playing of the Chopin’s magnificent Barcarolle, Op. 60, is a case in point. It was a performance that was richly varied in terms of texture and articulation. And the rower of this boat allowed himself to be carried by the waves of the water, and the music ebbed and flowed along with it. In his Chopin playing, Osokins highlighted for me the beauty of his writing for the left hand. I noticed this particularly in the brief passage beginning at m. 78 that leads up to the double trill at m. 84, as well as the left hand chords leading up to the end of the work at m. 113 to 114. Overall, it was an interpretation that was spacious, yet with a keen sense of direction as well as a strong sense of the rhythm.

With Chopin’s music, it is all too easy to be reveling in the beautiful sound world, and losing track of the structural integrity of the work’s design. In Osokins’ Chopin playing last night, I felt that in spite of the beauty of the music, the sense of architecture, of logic, was never lost.

This was especially apparent in Osokins’ masterful interpretation of Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. In his playing of the sprawling first movement, there was clarity of texture and a palpable sense of an awareness of the structure of the music. As I said earlier, he never allowed the beauty of the music to overshadow its logic. His playing of the scherzo was truly breathtaking, with a beguiling lightness of touch, and a clear display of his awesome pianistic ability. The largo movement was infused with a quiet dignity and a mesmerizing beauty of sound. I felt that the E major section (m. 29) had a special glow to it, almost as if a bright light was shining upon a beautiful diamond. Osokins’ stunning playing of the final movement had a relentless quality to the music, partly achieved by his sense of rhythm in the left hand. From the opening octaves to the build-up toward the triumphant ending, there was never any doubt in my mind that I was witnessing an amazing musical mind at work here.

Under the enthusiastic urging of the audience, Osokins launched into one of two encores, the work that most people associate with Chopin – the Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53. There was a real sense of drive in his interpretation of this justifiably famous work, but balanced by a lightness and a real feeling for the spirit of the dance. In the famous octave B section, Osokins did not, like many other young keyboard demons, get carried away with excessive speed, but managed to convey a real sense of mounting excitement. It is not how I think of the work, but his viewpoint of this iconic work was both valid and interesting.

The artist once again demonstrated his understanding of and affinity for the Rachmaninoff idiom in his second encore, the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12. Right from the shimmering right hand broken chords at the beginning, Osokins revealed to us the subtle beauty of this oft-played work. In the return of the theme, now in open chords, at m. 35, there was an even greater feeling of bleakness in his playing. With the ascending right hand notes, where the music floats away into nothingness, we came to the end of an unforgettable musical journey.

In conversation with Mr. Osokins, I find him to be a young man with definite ideas about music as well as what it is to be a musician, and artist. He has a deep knowledge of the piano literature as well as our heritage of great pianists from the past. He hails from a family of pianists, and told me that he literally grew up “under the piano”, listening to his father’s playing. His brother is also a pianist who has distinguished himself in international competitions, and is currently living in London. We also spoke of his experiences in the 2015 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and the challenges and intense pressure he faced during those weeks. During that time, he developed a rapport and friendship with Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, silver medalist in the competition, who will be playing in Vancouver this coming November.

I asked him if he sometimes feel lonely when he is touring. He said that he loves to travel and to visit new places, and does not mind being alone, since it gives him time to think. The distinguished pianist and teacher Gary Graffman said that he found it strange when someone tells him that he or she wants to become a concert pianist. He said that one can study to become a pianist, or a musician, but to be a concert pianist entails being asked to give concerts. If Thursday night’s concert was any indication, he should be well on his way to becoming a “concert pianist”.

As much as I would have loved to have heard Mr. Freire, we can now claimed that we were at the Canadian debut of Georgijs Osokins. On top of his limitless pianistic ability, Mr. Osokins has a fertile musical mind that lets him make anything he plays at least interesting and worth hearing. I think we have not heard the last of Mr. Osokins, and I will be watching his continuing musical development with intense interest.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Symphonic Masterworks

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra welcomed back Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama, its Conductor Laureate, in a concert celebrating our Central European roots in music.

The evening began with the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, K. 527. I had the good fortune last summer to attend a performance of Don Giovanni at Prague’s Estates Theatre, where the opera premiered. It was amazing that the orchestra for that performance was made up of only about 50 to 60 musicians, but in that acoustically ideal hall in Prague, Mozart’s music never sounded bigger or more dramatic.

That said, Akiyama’s reading of the famous overture had much to offer, from its dark and somber opening to the brisk and charming ending. Wanting to watch the Maestro working from close up, I had asked for seats on Row 3 of the hall. Under Akiyama’s hands, the music took on a three-dimensional quality, and orchestra played with great subtlety, elan and style.

Violinist Isabelle Faust joined the orchestra in a scintillating performance of Bartok’s Violin Concert No. 2. I had heard Ms. Faust before in a recital of Beethoven violin sonatas, and it was good to have had an opportunity to hear her as a concerto soloist. In this concerto, Bartok really exploited (in the best sense of the word) every facet of the violin’s possibility, from the almost savagely wild, to the most gentle and cantabile playing. Faust is a master violinist, in control of every aspect of her playing, from the rhapsodic opening of the first movement, to the lyrical middle movement, to the fireworks of the final movement. What was equally satisfying was Akiyama’s reading of the score, conjuring a lush orchestral fabric through which the solo violin was able to weave and made the performance complete. It was truly a collaborative effort between soloist, orchestra and conductor.

Although not as immediately accessible as the famous New World Symphony, or as charming and tuneful as the eighth symphony, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 is, from a standpoint of musical craftsmanship, a superior work to its better-known siblings. According to Zubin Mehta, it is one of the more difficult works in the orchestral repertoire. Akiyama’s reading of this symphony was astonishing, and had a sense of totality and complete control from first note to last. In the rather Brahmsian 1st movement, I had rarely heard the VSO strings sound so lush and rich. The orchestral playing was especially beautiful in the solemn and tranquil second movement. The rhythmically tricky third movement was handled with panache by the orchestra, and in the dramatic final movement, with its blazingly triumphant ending, the orchestra truly sounded like the great ensemble that it is.

Attending a concert by Maestro Akiyama is like witnessing a lesson in pure musicianship.

In the last decade or more, every visit by this remarkable musician in has resulted in memorable performances. I was saddened to read that we won’t have him in our midst next season. I hope that the management of the orchestra would get their act together and book him for many appearances in the orchestra’s coming seasons.