Monday, October 31, 2016

Moscow Nights

Hearing Van Cliburn was the greatest disappointment of my life. It was, I think, in 1977, that he came to play a recital in Vancouver. He appeared at 8:30 for a recital advertised to begin at 8:00. An announcement was made that his plane was late. I remember only two items from the concert – Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 330, a work he played at the 1958 Tchaikovsky competition, and Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 13. The playing was clean but colourless and without excitement. After the inevitable standing ovation that greeted him at the end of the performance, Cliburn obligingly gave several encores before the end of the evening.

I left the hall thinking, “This was Van Cliburn?”

It is only much later that I found out that Cliburn was having one of the most difficult times of his life. His father had died, and so did Sol Hurok, his long time manager, as well as Rosina Lhévinne, his beloved teacher in Julliard. And he was tired, tired of the endless tour, and tired, perhaps of having to constantly live up to everyone’s near impossible expectations of him. He retired from concert life in 1978, about a year after his appearance in Vancouver.

There haven’t been many books written about Van Cliburn. The biography about the pianist by Howard Reich is a good starting point. Certainly the very private Cliburn would not have encouraged potential biographers. Nigel Cliff’s latest book - Moscow Nights – the Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War (Harper Collins, 2016) – is a welcomed addition to the literature.

I could not put down Cliff’s book once I delved into it, a fascinating re-visiting of the pianist’s life and career, set against the backdrop of the height of the Soviet-United States rivalry as superpowers. Part biography, and part Cold War history, it certainly made for a great read.

I loved the pacing of the author’s storytelling, and how he alternates important chapters in Cliburn’s life with important events in the Cold War – Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s “thaw”, his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality, Sputnik, Gary Powers and the shooting down of the U2 over Soviet air space, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the relationship between various U.S. presidents and the Soviets. Regardless of periods of even severe hostility between the two nations, Van Cliburn was always greeted in the Soviet Union as a native son, to the extent of arousing the suspicions of the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover – we mustn’t forget that this was the time of the “Red scare.” Not surprisingly, Cliff reveals that both the FBI and the KGB had files on Cliburn.

Although relying heavily on Howard Reich’s Cliburn biography, Cliff also revealed many new details that I had not known. Cliff gives us many more details about the intrigues of the competition, about Cliburn’s relationship with the other contestants, as well as how members of the jury viewed him. I had also not realized Rosina Lhévinne’s resentment at not having heard from Cliburn personally after he won the Tchaikovsky, and how Cliburn hadn’t even offered to pay her back for all the (free) extra lessons she had given him before the competition. To me, what was especially revealing was the pianist’s friendship with Khrushchev, and how his standing with the Soviet politburo fell after Khrushchev’s fall from grace, even though the Soviet and the Russian public continued to love him until his death.  

I, and I’m sure, many others, have probably wondered – what kind of a musician would Van Cliburn be had he not won the Tchaikovsky Competition? With his talent and pianistic abilities, he would have had a career as a pianist. Perhaps he could have developed as a conductor, as he had already exhibited talent in that direction. But he simply didn’t have time to do anything else but play one concert after another, and play for one president after another. I suppose his win in Moscow had also been at least partly responsible for today’s proliferation of music competition, of young musicians’ mindset that winning a major competition would “make” their career like Van Cliburn.

As Cliff writes, “Fame had set him up to be the greatest pianist of all, and he could not quite manage that.” What person could? Cliburn’s mother had brought him up to be a Southern gentleman, a church-going, courteous, and somewhat idealistic man who believed in the power of music in bridging people. Again, to quote Cliff, “As the gears of international relations turned and, for a moment, clicked into place, he was delighted to play his part.” At the end, he remained an American icon, a symbol of greatest in the arts that the country is capable of.

At its best, Van Cliburn’s performances should be remembered for their transcendental pianism as well as beauty of sound, a throwback to the days of Rachmaninoff and Hoffman. Perhaps he saved his best and most inspired playing for his beloved Russian audience, an audience that accepted him for the artist he was. Certainly he deserved to be remembered for his performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerti more than having played Moscow Nights for Gorbachev.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Charles Richard-Hamelin, Canadian Pianist

When Van Cliburn returned to the United States after winning the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, he was given a ticker tape parade in New York, as well as an avalanche of publicity. Well, the world has become a very different place since 1958, and we Canadians do things a little more quietly, except when it comes to hockey. When pianist Andre Laplanté came home with the silver medal in the 1978 Tchaikovsky competition, or when Jon Kimura Parker won the Leeds Piano Competition in 1984, the responses had been relatively mute, except within the small circle of classical music lovers. (To be fair, Parker’s win in Leeds was greeted with some jubilation in Vancouver, the artist’s hometown.)

Last year, my Canadian heart again sang with pride when pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin returned to Canada with the silver medal at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Even with the hundreds of piano competition taking place all over the world, a win at the Chopin – probably one of the most prestigious competitions today - remains the Holy Grail for pianists.

Yesterday, I put down my impressions of the debut CD of Georgijs Osokins. This morning I had a chance to listen to Charles Richard-Hamelin’s CD, also of music by Chopin, made before his triumph in Poland last year (Analekta AN 2 9127). Like Osokins, Hamelin included in his recording Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor as well as the Polonaise-Fantasie, but Hamelin rounds out his CD with the composer’s Nocturnes, Op. 62.

I started listening first with the two Nocturnes, which is placed at the end of the CD. Right at the outset of the Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 1, I noticed Hamelin’s very emotive sound, one that catches your attention immediately. He plays the opening theme beautifully, but simply, directly, and does not overindulge in rubato. It is not until m. 53 that he allows a little flexibility to the unfolding melody. There is a beautifully intimate pianissimo at the brief passage from m. 62 to the key change at m. 68. Hamelin effectively observes Chopin’s poco piu lento with the descending trills at m. 68. In the coda he evokes a gorgeous sound from his instrument and achieves a magical mood of the sound coming from afar.

As in the previous work, Hamelin plays the opening of the Nocturne, Op. 62, No. 2 simply, allowing the music to build up gradually and naturally. Beginning at m. 36, there is a very effective buildup of tension towards the agitato section at m. 40. He is very cognizant of the fact that Chopin is far from being a “right handed composer”; he makes us aware of the role the left hand plays in the harmonic as well as contrapuntal design of the music. At the return of the theme at m. 58, there is brief but dramatic moment of bleakness in the sound.

I very much like Hamelin’s atmospheric opening of the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61. He allows for a lot of space in this opening, and does not rush the ascending broken chord notes (mm. 1, 2, 7 and 8) after the solemn chords. Unlike Osokins, Hamelin thinks of this work, I sense, more as a Polonaise than a Fantasie. He effectively highlights the dance-like aspect of the work in the left hand Polonaise rhythm at m. 22, and uses it as a rhythmic underpinning as the music unfolds. His timing with the two fermatas at mm. 62 and 63 is impeccable. At m. 66, there was a shift in mood, a surge of energy, achieved by the surging left hand ascending scales. The interplay between the two hands is extremely well done, and again highlights the intricacies of Chopin’s contrapuntal design. Hamelin achieves with his pedaling a beautiful blending of sounds in the return of the opening Polonaise melody with broken chord accompaniment in the left hand (m. 94), and there is an absolutely gorgeous turn of phrase in the right hand at mm. 123 to 124. I agree with his choice of tempo at the poco piu lento at m. 148, and I thought that his voicing of the chords is lovely. At mm. 168 to 179, Hamelin once again draws my attention to the beauty Chopin’s writing for the left hand. He achieves a beautiful blending of sound in the long passage of trills at mm. 200 to 204. With the brief return of the introduction at mm. 214 and 215, he manages to highlight the contrast between the two statements. Overall, I feel that Hamelin’s view of the score is one of epic grandeur rather than one that is more dreamy, or fantastic. Therein lies how Chopin’s works can and will always accommodate an infinite number of approaches.

Hamelin’s approach to the Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 highlights the drama of this large work and clearly demonstrates his awareness of the work’s overall architecture. In the first movement, the arrival of the second theme at m. 41 sounds so logical and natural that we then realize how the pianist must have been allowing the music to build and to develop up to that point. Hamelin’s playing of the brief octave melody at mm. 61 and 62 has a quietly ardent quality to it, and he beautifully plays the two descending statements in the left hand at mm. 131 and 132. During the statement of the 2nd theme in the recapitulation, there is a sudden moment of intimacy at mm. 158 to 160 that is beguiling.

In the Scherzo, the artist is aiming for more clarity rather than a dizzying blur of sonorities. The notes in the right hand are more clearly etched, but the music never sounds heavy-handed. Hamelin’s awareness of the work’s architecture is being made aware again in how he effectively transitions into the Trio. His buildup towards the end of the Scherzo is simply breathtaking.

The opening of the third movement is played with great dignity, almost in a Beethovenian manner. Hamelin’s playing of the theme is rhythmically tight. I believe that he is trying to let the beauty of the music speak for itself. He achieves the transition from B major to E major (mm. 28 to 29) beautifully. In the return of the main theme at m. 99, Hamelin achieves a rocking motion in the left hand, almost like a Barcarolle rhythm, which gives the melody a different feel to it.

Hamelin manages another incredible buildup of tension in the brief opening of the fourth movement, a portent for things to come. Hamelin highlights the perpetual mobile aspect of the theme, and gives the entire movement a sense of unflagging and unrelenting energy. The playing of this difficult movement is truly epic. In spite of this, Hamelin wisely leaves the fireworks until the end of the work, and really unleashes the powers of his virtuosity only at m. 262. From beginning to end, this is a truly masterful reading of this great late work of Chopin.

Listening to the two CD’s by Georgijs Osokins and Charles Richard-Hamelin, we should be glad to know that in this age of image over musicianship, we still have in our midst young artists who are in search of the truth in music, and seeking the meaning of what lies behind the written notes. To listen to these very different interpretations of Chopin’s late works has been a most rewarding experience, and I find myself being fascinated by these two different viewpoints, as much as I am by Chopin’s design.

Charles Richard-Hamelin makes his Vancouver recital debut on the evening of Sunday, November 6th at the Vancouver Playhouse, under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society (

Perhaps Mr. Hamelin does not need a ticker tape parade down West Georgia Street, but I hope there will be a large and enthusiastic audience at the concert for this young artist who has made history and brought glory to Canadian culture.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Debut Recording

Ever since pianist Georgijs Osokins’ unexpected but highly successful recital debut in Vancouver, I have often listened to and enjoyed his first commercial CD – Chopin – Late Works, Op. 57 – 61 (Piano Classics PCL0109). Hearing this recording confirmed and reinforced many of the impressions I formed while hearing Mr. Osokins’ live performance last season.

The recording begins with a ravishing account of Chopin’s Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57. In this miniature masterpiece, Chopin foreshadows the piano writing about half a century later in the works of Claude Debussy. In the “duet” within the right hand at mm. 7 to 15, Osokins plays the alto voice with a subtlety that really catches the listener’s attention. From m. 15 to m. 18, when Chopin “hides” the melody within the grace notes, there is a shimmering quality in the sound the pianist makes on the instrument. From the descending thirds at m. 31 to the chord series at m. 35, to the 32nd note runs commencing at m. 37, Osokins’ pedaling creates a truly magical effect. Finally, at mm. 53 and 54, the artist plays the right hand triplets with such delicacy that it is breathtaking. All in all, a very promising start to this recorded recital.

In Osokins’ interpretation of the composer’s Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58, he employs quite a generous amount of rubato. But never do I feel that anything is unnatural or contrived. To be sure, this is an interpretation that is different from many I have heard, but it is not different for the sake of being different, or being clever. After the opening descending 16th notes, Osokins manages to play the three appearances of the ascending chords (mm. 2 to 3, 6 to 7, and 10 to 11) each time differently. At m. 23 (to m. 27), his playing and pedaling of the left hand chromatic scales is nothing short of masterful.  Throughout the extended movement, Osokins manages to achieve great clarity in the Chopin’s complex contrapuntal thread. In the second movement, the pianist achieves a gossamer lightness with his quite incredible finger work. It is interesting that at the end of the scherzo, Osokins did not strictly observe Chopin’s ff marking, but he did at the end of the return of the scherzo after the trio, which makes for a more emphatic ending to the movement.

After the portentous opening to the third movement, Osokins plays the opening theme beautifully, but also rhythmically impeccably. At his recital last season, I was quite taken by his playing of the E major theme at m. 29. Well, his playing of the same theme here is just as captivating. The brief secondary melody in the left hand at m. 46, and again in m. 80, is beautifully realized. In the dolcissimo entry of the theme at m.99, now accompanied by triplets, Osokins injects the music with a different feeling than when it first appears at m. 4.

Osokins’ playing of the opening octaves of the 4th movement creates a momentous feeling as well as one of suspense. The 16th note runs starting at m. 76, marked leggiero by the composer, is played with an exquisite lightness that is exhilarating. Unlike many pianists, Osokins did not overdo the hairpins (crescendo and decrescendo) at mm. 189 to 190, but uses them to shape the right hand arpeggio. Throughout the movement, the listener feels a sense of unflagging energy, but never at the expense of the lightness the music calls for. What is rare, especially in an artist so young, is that there is always a sense that there is still reserved energy not yet unleashed. Moreover, even in the heat of the excitement, Osokins never creates an ugly sound. Everything is always musical. The coda was not rushed, but the buildup to the cataclysmic ending was incredibly effectively paced.

After the large canvas of the sonata, Osokins turns to the three Mazurkas, Op. 59. Musically, these are probably the most intricate music in the entire disc. The young artist successfully conveys the very individual character of each of the Mazurka, as well as the spirit of the dance. In Op. 59, No. 1, he serves as the listener’s guide through the complex contrapuntal web at mm. 42 to 50. The ending to the same Mazurka was extremely spacious; it is as if he is reluctant to let the music end. In Op. 59, No. 2, I was especially taken with how he successfully captures the lilt of the dance, and the way he plays the theme in the left hand at m. 69 is extremely striking. In Op. 59, No. 3, he achieves a magical moment in the key change from m. 44 to m. 45.

For me, the highlight of this outstanding recording is Osokin’s interpretation of the Barcarolle, Op. 60. The pianist successfully evokes the smoldering eroticism of Chopin’s score. Right at the outset of the work, in the left had “rowing” figures of the left hand, he creates a trance-like, almost hypnotic effect. At m. 14, in the right hand descending sixths, Osokins realizes to perfection Chopin’s leggiero marking. The same can be said about his interpretation of the composer’s sotto voce indication in m. 40, at the beginning of the A major section, creating a hushed quality in the music. At m. 61, with the right hand chordal theme, he balances each chord so meticulously and so perfectly, that the music really does float. One thing I noted from Osokins’ recital is his remarkable ability to create a liquid sound on the piano. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rapid right hand runs starting at m. 78. In the coda, the left hand chords at mm. 113 and 114 are played so beautifully that it takes my attention away from the rapid passagework in the right hand. From first note to last, this is nothing short of a masterful interpretation of this miraculous work.

In the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, Osokins did not get carried away by the looseness of the work’s structure, but gives us a structurally sound, rhythmically tight reading of the piece. In the very difficult opening, I appreciate how he balances sound and silence. I was also taken with the way he plays the left hand octave triplets at mm. 10 and 11, making them sound like sudden outbursts of sound. At m. 181, he successfully conveys the heartbreak of this achingly beautiful melody, but he does not overdo it in its reappearance at m. 216. At the beginning of the coda (m. 254), Osokins did not strictly observe Chopin’s ff marking, but wisely allows the music to build.

After hearing these massive works, it seems a bit of an anti-climax to end the recital with the Souvenir de Paganini in A major, Op. Posth. That said, Osokins gives the music the same attention to details as he does to every work on this disc, lavishes his beautiful sound on every note and infuses the music with great charm and lightness.

In the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Osokins was deemed too controversial or unpredictable to have been awarded the top prize. I have now heard this disc half a dozen times, and my impression is one of a young artist giving us what he feels to be the way to interpret the music. Hearing his performances, I do not feel that he is out to seek attention, but is on a quest to seek the meaning of every piece of music he sets out to play.

Georgijs Osokins is an artist we should be watching and listening to very closely in the years to come.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

To the Memory of an Angel

It is courageous for violinist Karen Gomyo and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to have programmed Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto at last night’s concert. A true masterpiece as well as one of the composer’s most moving works, it can hardly be called a crowd pleaser. I did notice a misprint on the cover of the programme, advertising, “Karen Gomyo plays Bruch”! If the audience had been expecting Bruch’s (albeit beautiful) concerto, they must have had quite a shock with the soft opening notes of Berg’s work. For me, it really was the performance of the Berg – one of my favourite works - that drew me to the Orpheum Theatre last night.

The concert also featured the debut of conductor Karina Canellakis, who came with impressive credentials, and did not disappoint. The concert opened with Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, K. 620. After a somewhat sluggish opening Adagio, the orchestra played with great energy and vigor at the outset of the Allegro. I especially appreciated how she balanced and coloured the wind and brass instruments at the return of the three “magic chords”.

Karen Gomyo played Berg’s Violin Concerto (“To the Memory of an Angel”) with great and deep feeling for the music, and was absolutely on top of the fearsome technical demands of the score. Her playing of the music written for the high registers of the violin had an ethereal quality that the music calls for. Canellakis proved to be a highly sensitive partner in the performer, brining out the drama and beauty of the orchestra writing, but never overpowering the solo violin, not an easy undertaking considering the rather large orchestral body. She also managed to evoke an almost chamber music-like quality in the orchestral sound. I found Gomyo’s playing of Berg’s quote of the Bach chorale (Es ist genug) tremendously moving.

After the interval, the young conductor led the orchestra through an impassioned reading of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ultra romantic Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27. In the many passages of lush string writing, he drew from the VSO strings a richness and a “bloom” in the sound that one all too rarely hears. I really appreciated her pacing and building of the music in the very extended first movement. The orchestra tore into the opening of the second movement (Allegro molto) with tremendous energy, and they kept up with it until the end of the movement. I had some reservations with the Meno Mosso section (11 measures before rehearsal number 33), when I thought should have played with more lightness. Somehow the music in this almost fughetta section failed to take off.

Kudos and bravo to principal clarinetist Jeanette Jonquil for her meltingly beautiful playing of the theme of the Adagio movement. Judging from the silence of the audience, I believed that Canellakis managed to keep our interest and attention throughout this long movement, no small accomplishment at all. Again, her pacing of this extended movement was impeccable. The playing of the final movement was tremendously exhilarating. She obviously inspired the orchestral members to play their hearts out.

Canellakis is obviously an extremely talented young conductor, with great baton technique that addresses every detail and a clear beat, which I am sure the orchestra appreciated. I think if, over time, her beat can be a little bit more fluid, the results would be even more outstanding.

This was certainly a very successful debut by a young conductor. With age and experience, I believe that she will perhaps not push the music quite so much, and will perhaps explore and exploit the softer orchestral sounds; it is certainly understandable how a young musician with talent and an obvious love for music can and want to squeeze every detail out of the score.

But it sure was an exciting ride!