Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ending on a High Note

It is always sad every year to realize that the concert season is winding down. The Vancouver Recital Society’s season ended a couple of weeks ago, and the Vancouver Chopin Society presented its final concert of the 2016-2017 season this past Sunday with a recital by the Armenian-born, Russian-trained, American pianist (and famed pedagogue) Sergei Babayan. I had never before heard him in concert, and so it was certainly a treat to have experienced the artistry, musicianship and pianism of this wonderful pianist.

Babayan began his performance with, I am guessing, the Vancouver premiere of Russian composer Vladimir Ryabov’s Fantasia in C minor, in memory of Maria Yudina, Op. 21. This is an incredibly intense and challenging work inspired by the repertoire and life of the great Soviet pianist Maria Yudina. I doubt that many people in North America had heard of Maria Yudina, since she didn’t – or couldn’t – play outside of her native Russia. But she was a pianist in the same order of a Richter or a Gilels. In the piece, there were allusions, or quotes, of themes from pieces that Yudina frequently played, as well as references to Orthodox Chants, because of the pianist’s Christian faith. Babayan’s performance of this demanding work was stunning, capturing the rapidly shifting moods and colours of the work. The work ended, as indicated in the programme notes, with “a dream-like perpetual motion punctuated by bell tones that seems to disintegrate into shattered silence.” The silence and attentiveness of the audience indicated to me that Babayan was successful in conveying the essence of this music.

The pianist continued with the rest of the first half with music by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, playing the pieces without a break. Indeed, Babayan created such a mood of intimacy, especially in the Chopin works, that I felt that he was playing for himself, and that the audience was almost eavesdropping upon this incredible performance. In the Polonaise in C-sharp minor, Op. 26, No. 1, Babayan captured the contrast between the drama and heroism of the outer sections with the lyricism and longing in the middle section. In the great Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2, I thought his playing of especially the descending scale at mm. 13 to 16 to be meltingly beautiful. The challenging B section of this waltz sounded as effortless and light as it could possibly be.

The pianist’s playing of the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, was very different from the performance given by Georgijs Osokins last season. Osokins brought out all the colours of this great masterpiece, while Babayan’s interpretation was more inward looking, more intimate. He did not try to make the Waltz in B minor, Op. 69, No. 2, bigger than it is, but played it with just the right degree of melancholy and an intense musicality. The Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29 was stunning in its gossamer lightness and breathlessness.

Instead of the Ballade No. 3 that was originally programmed, the artist decided on a last minute programme change, playing instead three short works by Sergei Rachmaninoff – the Etude Tableaux in E-flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5, the Moment Musicaux in E-flat minor, Op. 16, No. 2, and the Moment Musicaux in C major, Op. 16, No. 3. The programme change showcased Babayan’s affinity for the music of the Russian composer. His performance of these works highlighted not only his awesome pianistic abilities, but also the beautiful sound – especially in the lower register of the piano – that he evoked from the instrument (this was also evident in his performance of the Ryabov), a sound that is so well suited to Rachmaninoff’s music.

Ever since hearing Glenn Gould’s stunning first recording of Bach’s monumental work, I have always had a personal bias that the Goldberg Variations as something that Canada owns. An artist like Babayan would obviously have its own interpretation of the work, one that really can lend itself to so many different views. Rather than, to paraphrase Gould’s words, looking for some kind of mathematical correspondence between the theme and the 30 variations, I believe Babayan was trying to convey the character of each individual variation. That said, I thought that his playing of the variations had a logical and natural flow from one to the next, as well as a palpable sense of totality that eludes many artists. In the 25th variation, he did not fall into the trap of wearing the tragedy of the music on his sleeve, but infused it with just the right degree of pathos. Babayan told me afterwards that he was inspired by the attentiveness of the afternoon’s audience.

After hearing Sergei Babayan, I understood why artists like Martha Argerich, Danil Trifonov, and Valery Gergiev regularly sought him out as collaborator. I am already looking forward to his next appearance in Vancouver.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In Search of Chopin's Soul

It takes a special pianist that has the stamina to play an all Chopin programme. The challenge is compounded when the recital encompasses both books of the Études (Op. 10 and 25) as well as the Preludes, Op. 28. And so it was that Canada’s own Louis Lortie graced the Orpheum stage for just such a performance. It was an evening of incredible pianism, but musically and emotionally somewhat less than entirely satisfactory.

It was impressive to watch Lortie launch right into the Études in C major, Op. 10, No. 1. I appreciated the clarity of his playing and his refraining from excessive pedaling. In the second Étude, the pianist’s fingerwork was immaculate, and he brought out the lightness and bounciness of the left hand. The celebrated Étude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3 had a beautiful return to the A section at the end of the work. Both the fourth and fifth Études were technically stunning. I particularly liked the glittering effect he achieved with the right hand triplets. Lortie successfully negotiated the subtle harmonic changes in the Rachmaninoff-like Étude in E-flat minor, Op. 10, No. 6, although I felt that there could have been more gradations of colours. I appreciated the clarity of texture and his voicing of the right hand in the Étude in C major, Op. 10, No. 7 as well as how he drew our attention to the beauty of the left hand in the Étude in F major, Op. 10, No. 8. The pianist underplayed the drama in the beginning of the Étude in F minor, Op. 10, No. 9 until the octave passages beginning at m. 49, and played a lovely ending bringing to life Chopin’s leggierissimo indication. The pedaling was particularly well done in his playing of the Étude in A-flat major, Op. 10, No. 10, which created some beautiful blending of sounds. Although the broken chords were immaculately executed in the Étude in E-flat major, Op. 10, No. 11, there was unfortunately a feeling of sameness in the sound. I thought that he missed Chopin’s dolcissimo indication at m. 44. This indication can only be found in the autograph and not the printed version, but it does make sense to have a different feel to the chords toward the end of the work. The so-called Revolutionary Étude (Op. 10, No. 12) was played with a great deal of sweep.

After only a brief pause, Lortie continued the first half with his performance of the Op. 25 set of Études. Unfortunately, the brightness of the piano took away the very subtle beauty of the music in the Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25, No. 1, but he did achieve the lightness that the music calls for. I have never understood Chopin’s seemingly absurdly fast metronomic indication (half note equals 112) for the Étude in F minor, Op. 25, No. 2. I feel that one would miss the beauty of the right hand triplets with such a quick tempo. Perhaps Lortie’s playing of the work has its own logic, since it created a lovely blending of sonorities. I was somewhat surprised at the very heavy handed playing of the third and fourth Études of the set, although I did admire his incisive attacks of the right hand chords in the fourth Étude. His playing of the Étude in E minor, Op. 25, No. 5 was far too heavily pedaled, and took away the gentle humour of the music. I believe that the opening section should be played much more dryly. He did, however, successfully convey the beauty of the left hand in the B section. Lortie’s performance of the frightfully difficult Étude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 was perhaps the highlight of the evening. To be sure, the rapid thirds in the right hand were perfectly played, but the beauty of the work, as Vladimir Howoritz said, is in the left hand. I think Lortie understood this, as he played it with grace and subtlety. His performance of the Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7, was successful as well, conveying the utter bleakness, sadness and despair that is inherent in the music. The transition to the B-flat major 6/4 chord at m. 27 was like a ray of sunlight that suddenly shone through. The artist pedaled the Étude in D-flat major, Op. 25, No. 8 most effectively, and played the short piece as if it were one long phrase. Unfortunately, the Étude in G-flat major, Op. 25, No. 9 (refer to by some as the Butterfly Étude) was far, far too heavily played – the butterfly was much too earthbound. He brought out the strange beauty of the B section in the Étude in B minor, Op. 25, No. 10, and his pacing in the return to the A section was most effective. The pianist really observed the composer’s risoluto indication at m. 5 of the Étude in A minor, Op. 25, No. 11. I find it interesting that most of Chopin’s indication in this very dramatic work is forte only, not fortissimo. In fact, the first fortissimo indications come only as late as m. 61 and 63. I thought Lortie understood this, and really let the music build rather than giving it all right at the outset. The last work of the set was also well played. He resisted pedaling the work excessively, which lent the work a clarity that we don’t often hear.

I missed the feeling of desperate longing and anticipation in Lortie’s playing of the Prelude in C major, Op. 28, No. 1, as well as the dark, menacing colours of the Prelude in A minor, Op. 28, No. 2. The pianist completely missed Chopin’s leggiermente marking for the Prelude in G major, Op. 28, No. 3, and played the left hand as if it were Czerny. I also missed the slow build-up that the music calls for in the Prelude in E minor, Op. 28, No. 4, as well as the Prelude in B minor, Op. 28, No. 6. Strangely, he seemed to have played the work with just a single colour. Again, the Prelude in D major, Op. 28, No. 5 was far too heavily played, and he failed to convey the beguiling beauty of the music. The Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7 was played simply and gracefully, exactly the qualities that the music calls for. The opening of the Prelude in F-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 8 sounded mechanical to my ears, but things did improve later on, but I did like the dignity he conveyed in his playing of the Prelude in E major, Op. 28, No. 9. I also liked the lightness of his right hand in the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 10, and his beautiful playing of the Prelude in B major, Op. 28, No. 11. Lortie successfully brought across the wildness of the music in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 28, No. 12. He achieved a rare real feeling of intimacy in his performance of the Prelude in F-sharp major, Op. 28, No. 13, and a feeling of buoyancy in the A section’s right hand chords. The playing got too loud too soon in the Prelude in E-flat minor, Op. 28, No. 14, and I missed the “weirdness” of the unison writing that is so apparent in the music. The artist gave us a lovely opening for the Prelude in D-flat major, Op. 28, No. 15, as well as effective transitions to the C-sharp minor B section and then back to the A section, although the climaxes in the B section could have been much more shattering (without being heavy).

Lortie certainly took no prisoners in his dramatic reading of the Prelude in B-flat minor, Op. 28, No. 16, although his sparse pedaling in the opening runs worked less successfully in this work. There were some lovely colours in the unique sonorities of the key of A-flat major (Op. 28, No. 17), even though I missed the richness in sound that the work calls for. The pianist captured the unsettling feeling in the Prelude in F minor, Op. 28, No. 18, and achieved in the Prelude in E-flat major (Op. 28, No. 19) the lightness and that had quite often eluded him last evening. There was lovely voicing of the middle voice in Lortie’s playing of the funereal Prelude in C minor, Op. 28, No. 20, but the right hand forte and fortissimo chords were much too heavy in the Prelude in B-flat major, Op. 28, No. 21. His playing of the Prelude in G minor, Op. 28, No. 22 was appropriately stormy, and technically impeccable. There was wonderful contrast between the aforementioned Prelude and the Prelude in F major (Op. 28, No. 23) that followed. Here, Lortie beautifully conveyed the picture of blue skies and calm waters. Likewise, the he captured the high drama and utter destruction (at the end) of the Prelude in D minor, Op. 28, No. 24.

Although there was much to admire in Mr. Lortie’s performance last night, honesty compels me to say that I found the essence of Chopin only in very few of the works performed. Part of the problem, I thought, was the instrument of the artist’s choice - that beautifully built concert grand of Italian origin that has been attracting fans amongst both musicians and the very wealthy. The sound was simply too bright, too booming, and it does not, in my view, possess the large tonal palette of the Steinway. There was much in Lortie’s playing that was heavy, and the very big sound that he commands does not always work for the composer’s music.

From the standpoint of piano playing, Lortie’s performance was beyond reproach, and it was obvious that every element in his conception of the pieces had been thoroughly worked out down to the last detail. I would like to believe that an artist with the talent and musicality of Louis Lortie would some day arrive at an ideal interpretation of Chopin’s music, if he continues his quest. In his encore, Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, he gave us a tantalizing hint that he is able to capture Chopin’s soul in his beautiful interpretation of the much loved work.

Alfred Brendel was correct in saying that a pianist either plays Chopin or everything else. And the entire evening reminded me yet again of how difficult it is to really interpret Chopin. Of all the composers, the essence, or the soul, of Chopin is most elusive to even the greatest pianists of any time. I am quite hopeful that Louis Lortie will one day find the true essence of Chopin in his artistic journey.

Patrick May
May 10, 2017

Monday, May 8, 2017

Portrait of a Young Musician

I had missed Benjamin Grosvenor’s last two appearances in Vancouver, and I was determined not to miss his recital yesterday. I am happy to say that I enjoyed the performance thoroughly.

It is an inspired idea to begin a recital with Schumann’s Arabeske, Op. 18. This miniature masterpiece from the composer’s “piano years”, where he composed some of his greatest works for the instrument, is a real test of a pianist’s musicality and the fluidity of his or her playing. Grosvenor passed both challenges with flying colours. Moreover, Grosvenor played the work with beautiful subtlety, simplicity and flexibility - a souplesse - as well as a hushed quality. I also really appreciated his timing of the fermata in between sections. The coda (Zum Schluss) had an incredible feeling of intimacy and delicacy.

Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat major, K. 333 is, I feel, one of the composer’s greatest of the genre. Grosvenor has a luminous quality in his Mozart playing, as if every note is one of a long string of precious pearls, as well as a wonderful attention to details in the left hand. There is a beguiling lightness in his playing of the many scale runs, and lightness in the tail ends of the phrases. The brief G minor theme at m. 64 of the third movement was particularly beautifully played. I loved his little interjections in the left hand at mm. 156 to 158, where I could almost see Figaro lurking in the background. The young pianist also conjured up some bold colours in the brief cadenza towards the end of the movement.

Yes, it is possible to bring freshness and originality to Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, the so-called Moonlight sonata, as Grosvenor did yesterday afternoon. I agreed with his tempo choice, respecting Beethoven’s alla breve indication – as well as his tempo relationship between the movements. There was a sense of nobility and elegance in his playing of the all-too-familiar opening movement. In both the first and second movements, there was beautiful voicing of the chords. His effective pedaling in the brief second movement created some lovely overtones, especially in the Trio section. In the stormy third movement, there was a feeling of control and clarity in the midst of the incredible drama. He also never lost the beauty of the sound in the many sf chords, without losing their explosive quality.

Grosvenor opened the second half of his programme with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor, Op. 19 (Sonata-Fantasy). The pianist managed to inject a logic and structure to the rather loosely constructed, albeit beautiful, first movement which, under the wrong hands, could impart a feeling of meandering. His playing of the Chopin-like (Chopin on steroids though!) opening and closing sections made me want to hear more of his Chopin playing. In this as well as the second movement, he drew upon his considerable tonal palette and his awesome pianistic resources – as he did for all the works in this second half.

I imagine that Grosvenor must be working his way through Enrique Granados’ monumental Goyescas, for he also included pieces from the cycle, I think, in his last recital here. It is very wise for him to add one or two works from the set every year, because these are certainly pieces that take time to make one’s own. I thought that his playing of the opening of Los Requiebros was very stylish, capturing the obvious Spanish inflections of especially the left hand. Although pianistically impeccable, I did feel that the young artist is still finding his way towards interpreting this complex work. I did not feel that he has arrived at an overall concept of the entire work. In El Fandango de Candil, the attacks in the opening chords could be sharper; overall, the Spanish flavour, or “taste”, is somewhat lacking. I would say again, though, that he rose well above the many daunting pianistic challenges from first note to last. In time, I am certain that he will make these pieces his own.

The pianist ended his programme with Franz Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody. I thought that his interpretation of the work has given us every ounce of music that the work contains. His timing was impeccable, and he (thankfully) did not fall into the trap of pounding the instrument in the many dramatic passages, always retaining his beautiful piano sound. There was always a feeling of control, that there is energy yet to be harnessed – rare qualities in so young a musician.

All in all, a beautifully put together and very satisfying recital, giving us a glimpse into many facets of this incredibly talented and musical artist. It is obvious that the sky is the limit for this young man, and we wait to witness the next chapter of his artistic journey.

Patrick May
May 8, 2017

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Last Tango in Berlin

I was happy when the Vancouver Opera Festival announced a concert by the German singer Ute Lemper. Ever since I was introduced to her album of Kurt Weill songs in the early 1990’s, I have been a keen admirer of her artistry. Her performance in Vancouver had the title Last Tango in Berlin, an eclectic mixture of the unfamiliar and very familiar. Backed only a trio of piano, bass and bandoneon – all wonderful musicians in their own right - it was an almost two hour tour de force of musicianship and vocal artistry.

Lemper began her concert with a deeply felt and moving performance of a work from her latest project, Songs for Eternity, songs that were all written in the concentration camps between 1941-1944. The song that she chose to sing was written in the camp at Vilnius, Lithuania. If her voice has lost a little of the refinement of her early years, it was apparent right at the outset that she has not lost any of its power, or the emotion it conveys. At 53, it is still a voice that reaches us directly and touches us emotionally. And her diction, whether she is singing in German, French or English, is impeccable. The songs that she chose gave us a glimpse into her very large musical world.

To be sure, there were songs that I had loved for a long time, such as Want to Buy Some Illusions, Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt, Lili Marleen (a personal sentimental favourite), and Edith Piaf’s iconic Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. And yes, she did sing Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, better known as the Ballad of Mack the Knife. There were also many works that were new to her and to her audience – works from her more recent projects, such as one from a collection of songs set to the poems of Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet. They were all songs of love, of despair, of hoping for a better world, as well as songs that show the seedier side of life.

It was a privilege to have heard this great singer in concert. I wish there were more young people in the audience. Those who were not at the concert – for there were many empty seats – missed a great opportunity of hearing a truly quality “popular” music performance, one that relies not on gimmick, but purely on the basis of the artistry of the performer.

Patrick May