Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Nordic Soundscapes

I had been so looking forward to last weekend’s Vancouver Symphony Concert, since it featured two of my favourite orchestral works: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30 and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82.

Yet I came away after the concert strangely disappointed.

The concert opened with Mexican-Canadian composer Alfredo Santa Ana’s Ocaso, a Spanish word for “dusk”. The work is well written and orchestrated, with a quietly energetic opening and closing, and a more lyrical middle section.  Yet, conductor Anu Tali failed to bring out fully the orchestral colours inherent in the score. This was to be a major complaint for the music making for the entire evening.

An interesting sight in music schools is piano student walking around with the score of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and its title prominently displayed. But even with today’s high standards of piano playing, there are still relatively few pianists who can truly bring off all the elements of this rich and dense score. For me, the orchestral writing for this concerto is no less amazing than its very demanding piano part.

Let me first say that pianist Alexey Yemtsov gave a note perfect and technically impregnable performance last Saturday evening. However, it was a performance that was devoid of tonal beauty, grandeur and poetry. We recently witnessed the Vancouver recital debut of Charles Richard Hamelin. Mr. Yemtsov’s approach to music making seemed to be the antithesis to that of Hamelin. Things were not helped by probably the dullest piano I had heard for a long time. While the haunting melody in the opening bars should be played simply, there was no shaping of the melodic lines under Yemtsov’s hands, and the result sounded angular. Even the buildup (piu vivo) to the incredible climax at 7 measures after rehearsal number 14 failed to elicit any real excitement. Conductor Tali conducted the score competently, and maintained a good sense of ensemble throughout the performance, but she was merely “accompanying” the concerto, and the orchestra definitely played a secondary role last Saturday. She completely failed to bring out the lushness and richness of the orchestral writing. Emotionally, the two artists may as well have been playing different pieces.

Close to the end of the third movement, at rehearsal number 74 (Vivacissimo), Tali did something quite inexplicable to my ears. At the third of the orchestral fanfares echoing the piano chords, she slowed down the tempo slightly, thereby slackening the tension in the music, and she did the same thing when the fanfares return at 13 measures after 74. Throughout the performance, there was a lot of banging on the keyboard, emphasizing the vertical rather than the horizontal elements of the music. There was no sense of phrasing in the many beautiful melodies throughout the work. This was the kind of “efficient” music making that seems to be so prevalent with today’s young pianists. It was digitally precise, but where was the music?

Ever since Glenn Gould used Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major as the soundtrack for his radio documentary The Idea of North, I have, every time I hear this music, conjured in my mind this imaginary Nordic but so very Canadian landscape. Tali’s reading of this score was musical, but she failed to bring out the epic quality that is (to me) inherent in the music. The wind players of the Vancouver Symphony played the opening of the first movement beautifully, as they always do. But the music does not build, and there was a serious lack of tension in the music making. The second movement was charming and beautiful, but it was again more of the image created by an ordinary photographer, rather than an Ansel Adams.

In the third movement, the rapid string figurations in the opening measures do not lead up to that incredible and inevitable arrival of the big theme by the French horns at letter D. Overall, the young conductor’s reading of the score missed the epic grandeur, the “bigness” (not loudness) of the music. Which was really unfortunate. Towards the end of the movement, when the same melody by the horns is played, the “answers” by the violins and violas (6 before letter P) should, I think, have a weightier, more substantial sound.

So, last Saturday’s performance was an evening of “might have been”. The performances were technically more than adequate, but somehow the artists missed the emotional impact these great works could have elicited.


Monday, November 7, 2016

Poet of the Piano

Charles Richard-Hamelin’s debut recital last night went like a dream. I had previously admired and enjoyed his all Chopin CD, made shortly before the Warsaw competition. In the relatively short time since that eventful competition, he has already matured into a different artist. It was a performance that set out to move, and not to impress, and what a moving performance of Chopin’s music it turned out to be. Hamelin included in his programme (with one exception) late works of Chopin, pieces that show the composer at the height of his compositional powers, music so original that it had no predecessors and no successors.

It is quite common to hear in Chopin that the key of a work is not established right away. In the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1, the composer begins with a cadence that establishes the dominant of B major. It is not until measure 4 that one hears the melody in the supposed key of B major. Hamelin cast a spell on us immediately, with his playing of the opening cadence. Even compared to the high standards he set in his recording, his legato is now meltingly beautiful. This is apparent even in the tricky descending scale at m. 68, outlined by trills that mark the return of the main theme. Later on, in the coda, he made the long phrase from m. 81 to 89 sound like a single breath. It was almost as if his fingers melted into the key to create the singing tone. I appreciate his pacing of the work, never hurrying, and letting the music speaks for itself. In the three cadences that end the work, he made each one sound slightly different. And at m. 93, where the right hand reaches from D-sharp to B, he shaped it such that the final cadence that follows had a plaintive quality to it. It was a magical beginning to a magical evening.

Hamelin playing of the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 reminded me of Busoni’s statement that during a performance, an artist should lose and find himself at the same time. He played this work like a beautiful dream, but at the same time seeing clearly the way before him. Rather than sounding like a series of lovely episodes, the transitioning from one section to another was seamless and logical, and the work had this quality of the first note connecting with the final note as part of a larger plan. I also loved the way he weighed and voiced each chord. Throughout the evening, no matter how big the sound was, or how dramatic the music happened to be, his playing never felt ponderous. Nowhere was this more evident than in his playing of the Ballade, where a sense of lightness and grace pervaded the entire performance.

There is nothing more difficult for pianists than the opening of the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, which sounds so seemingly formless and without direction. Hamelin obviously grasped the overall structure and logic of Chopin’s design, and he made the arrival of the Polonaise at m. 22 seem so natural, as if it grew out of the silences of the previous measures. Throughout the performance of this difficult work, his instincts and timing for this difficult music was impeccable.

As if to lighten the mood before the second half, Hamelin ended his first half with a glittering performance of the Introduction et rondo in E-flat major, Op. 16, a rarely played work. This was music of Chopin’s youth, when he was still trying to make a name for himself as a virtuoso, and the writing is reminiscent of that of the final movement of the Piano Concerto in E minor. Hamelin went far beyond overcoming the pianistic hurdles, but actually made it sound effortless and fun, much more challenging on a modern piano than on the instruments from Chopin’s days, with their lighter action. It was the perfect sorbet between more substantial courses of music.

Hamelin’s playing of the Mazurkas, Op. 59, was idiomatic, and captured the essence of the three very different works – the melancholy of the first, the grace of the second, and the strength and energy of the third. Always, it was playing that draw us to the beauty and genius of the music, and to the inner spiritual world of the composer, rather than a mere pianistic display, which seems to be all one hears today in so many of today’s young keyboard titans.

Considering the high standards Hamelin had set throughout his recital, it seems hard to believe that the highlight of the evening really was Hamelin’s performance of the Sonata in B minor, Op. 58. From first note to last, there was never a doubt in my mind that Hamelin is a pianist of the first order. He played the work with a sovereign’s command of every musical and pianistic detail. I imagine that Hamelin had had to play this work quite a lot this past year, because his interpretation of this work has really matured, something only possible with repeated performance and rethinking. His pedaling of the difficult transition from the Scherzo to the trio (mm. 60 – 61) was masterful. In the Largo movement, Hamelin really entered the emotional core of the music, and conveyed for me the otherworldly beauty of Chopin’s melodic genius. In the return of the theme at m. 99, there was an extra dimension of feeling, a feeling of regret that one is hearing this for the last time. In the last movement, Hamelin’s sense of propulsion, and his impeccable sense of timing and rhythm, made the performance an indelible experience.

In his performance of his first encore, the Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53, Hamelin did not try to overwhelm the audience with surface excitement, or even with the sheer sound this music can produce. It was a performance that stressed the grandeur of the music. Even in the B section, with its frightening (for pianists) left hand octaves, sounding like the Polish army marching against her enemy, one never gets the sense that it was a virtuoso display. That said, Hamelin’s managed to make this work that we all know too well sound fresh, original, and indeed thrilling.

The young artist ended the evening with the Mazurka in B minor, Op. 33, No. 4, one of the composer’s more extended work in the genre. As in his playing of the larger works of the evening, there was a sense of logic in his transition from one section to another, and the playing was never arbitrary. (So often one hears pianist play Chopin like a sleepwalker, wandering from one episode to the next.) His Mazurka playing infuses the music with great dignity and pride, and shows his uncanny feeling for rhythm and timing. It is also stylistically impeccable.

I am quite certain that the four hundred odd pianists who entered the 2015 International Chopin Competition all have technique to burn. I am quite sure that members of the jury were not looking for glittering technique. From his performance last evening, I am certain that Hamelin owed his success to his musicianship, the maturity of his interpretation, as well as the sincerity, ardor and poetry of his playing. In last night’s concert, one felt that the artist was baring his soul in front of us.

Charles Richard-Hamelin. Remember this name; because it won’t be the last time you hear it. If he continues to develop as an artist and as a musician, this will be a name that will go down in the annals of music.

Welcome to Vancouver, Charles. And see you again soon.

Mahler Ninth

It is difficult to believe that Mahler symphonies were, until the efforts of conductors like Mitropoulos and Bernstein in the 1950’s and 1960’s, thought to be tortuous and largely incomprehensible. Today, Mahler symphonies have become the calling cards of conductors. Even so, performances of the composer’s 9th symphony are still special events in any orchestra’s calendar.

Gustavo Dudamel, the young and very talented music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, brought his “band” to Seattle’s Benaroya Hall for a single performance of this, the last completed symphony of Gustav Mahler. In the programme notes, writer Steven Lowe made the oft-repeated idea that Mahler’s final symphony was his farewell to the world, and that the composer was filled with thoughts of his impending death. I was taught by a musicologist not to read too much of any composer’s life into his music. In fact, according to Mahler biographer Henry-Louis de la Grange, the composer was in quite a positive frame of mind when he wrote the 9th symphony. That said, the work is filled with a very elegiac quality, especially in the two outer movements, that made such associations tempting.

Ever since reading about this very special concert, I had been waiting for the day with much anticipation. I had so wanted to hear this great orchestra under a conductor of which so much has been written.

I must confess that I was slightly disappointed with the playing of the 1st movement. To be sure, the orchestral playing in each section was of the very highest level, but somehow I thought Dudamel did not really penetrate the spiritual core of this movement, and the music, to me, sounded rather episodic, going from one climax to the next. Even the great climax at 15 measures after Rehearsal number 14, where Mahler marks Pesante (Höchste Kraft), seemed underplayed, and did not give the impression of the apocalyptic vision the composer (I think) had in mind. I did feel that things got much better toward the end of the movement. The French horn solo of Schon ganz langsam (52 measures after Rehearsal number 16) was played with great poignancy, and a palpable sense of regret and nostalgia.

The rest of the symphony left me with a completely different impression. In the second movement, Dudamel captured the weirdness of this corrupted Ländler in the different harmonization of the woodwind figures that first appear in measures 3 and 4. At measure 9, the second violins played with an earthiness and gutsiness in the sound that was striking. I was also captivated with the playing of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s horn section, which figures so prominently in this work. The intonation was impeccable, and the sound was always beautiful even in the biggest climax.

Dudamel’s reading of the brutal Burleske movement was truly frightening and breathtaking. There was, in the performance, a sense of weight in the string sounds of the orchestra. Special kudos to Associate Principal viola Dale Hikawa Silverman, who truly shined in the many prominent solos in the movement, playing with great power and really capturing the unique character of the movement.

The young conductor led the orchestra in the final Adagio in playing that was truly magisterial, and with a sense of totality from first note to last that I missed in the first movement. In the first statement of chorale, the Los Angeles strings played with a sound like burnished gold. In that incredible descending scale figure of C-flat, B-double flat, A-flat and G-flat (Wieder zurückhaltend), the orchestra played with a frightening and unbearable intensity that the music calls for, making those brief four measures lasting seemingly an eternity before the chorale returns. At the end of the movement, Dudamel kept his hands in the air for more than a minute, hearing the intense silence, and respecting Mahler’s marking of ersterbend, before the storm of applause broke the spell of this incredible music. The performance was such that applause seemed like such a rude intrusion.

I felt privileged to have been a witness to this very special evening of music making.

Patrick May, November 6, 2016