Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Perry So with the VSO

Conductor Perry So made a welcomed return to Vancouver this weekend, conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I was moved by So’s music-making at his first Vancouver appearance, when he substituted for the scheduled conductor. He was a sensitive partner to Louie Lortie in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, and gave an incandescent reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor. This time around, the programme chosen probably had less popular appeal, which unfortunately accounted for the many empty seats in the Orpheum Theatre last evening.

The first piece on the programme last night was Jocelyn Morlock’s Earthfall. Morlock is the orchestra’s Composer in Residence, and many of her compositions have been performed often by the orchestra. Earthfall is a brilliantly colourful and evocative work - one that I hope will be repeated often. In her talk before the performance, the composer shared her experience playing in a gamelan ensemble, which influenced her composition of the present work. Indeed, the gentle, rhythmically pulsating beginning of the work did indeed remind me of that beautiful instrument from Bali. The opening of the work is almost minimalistic in style, with changes taking place slowly over time and with slowly building tension. The texture and tension build to a climax, after which came a quieter section (the tension remains though), with violins playing in the high register, almost to provide colours, set against the woodwinds and brass. There was a beautiful theme for the second and then first violins, and the music came to a tranquil ending with the lower registers of the violins set against the fluttering sounds of the winds.

It is often difficult to judge a performance based upon a first hearing of an unfamiliar work, but I believe So and the orchestra captured the essence, the changing moods, as well as the colourful nature of the work. Yesterday’s performance confirmed my impression of So as having a great command of the orchestral resources. The orchestra responded well under his direction, and all its “departments” outdid themselves with their outstanding playing in this technically demanding and musically challenging work.

Violinist Alexandra Soumm made her debut with the orchestra in the same concert with Edouard Lalo’s colourful and virtuosic Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21. I was as impressed with So as a gallant accompanist as I was with Soumm’s tempestuous playing.

I loved the weighty string tone So evoked at the beginning of the 1st movement (Allegro non troppo). For the first time, the strings were well balanced against the brass instruments of the orchestra. Soumm has a rich, luxuriant and vibrant sound that could cut through the orchestral texture, and she certainly rose to the challenge of the colourful and demanding string writing with aplomb.

Similarly, I was taken with the quality of the string tone at the quiet beginning of the 2nd movement. In this movement (Scherzando: Allegro molto) I appreciated the soloist more for the virtuosity of her playing than for capturing the Spanish flavour and rhythm of the music. Her playing in this movement was somewhat metronomic and did not “move” enough rhythmically.

The orchestra began the 3rd movement with great energy, and again with a sense of weight in the string tone. Soloist, conductor and orchestra captured the inflections of the Spanish rhythm, and the timing between soloist and conductor was perfect. Here, Soumm also highlighted the richness of her tone, especially in the lower register of the instrument, and she also highlighted the more rhetorical nature of the music.

I appreciated the spaciousness of the opening of the 4th movement. In fact, I think I heard some of the best brass playing by this orchestra in a long time. Here, our soloist showed her lyrical side, playing with a wonderful intimacy. The few brief orchestral outbursts were also wonderfully played.

I would have wished for a little more lightness in the joyful 5th movement of the work. The playing was colourful and exciting here, and the orchestra, under So, highlighted all the rhythm and colours inherent in the music.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 is, I believe, a challenge for conductor, orchestra, and audience. A great performance of this work requires virtuosic playing from every member of the orchestra. Last year, I heard a never-to-be-forgotten performance of this same work by the Chicago Symphony under Ricardo Muti, a performance whose sound I have been carrying in my head.

I believe So’s interpretation of this difficult work is an indication of a young musician still figuring things out. Yes, he is enormously talented and musical, but I believe he is now thinking through his interpretations.

But, better this than taking the easy way out for any musician.

I thought that the slow introduction of the 1st movement (Ziemlich langsam) called for far more tension than the musicians delivered. The descending scale at mm. 18 to 21 should be played with far more intensity and greater weight in the sound. As well, I missed a real sense of build-up in the few brief measures (mm. 22 to 28) to the 1st theme (Lebhaft) at m.29. At m. 29, the articulation needed to be clearer in the strings, because there was some muddiness in the sound, and the off-beat accents at m. 35 should have been much sharper. I believe that at Letter E, there could have been more of a sense of forward propulsion.

I missed the sense of inevitability in the transition to the second movement, a Romanze (Ziemlich langsam). I wished for more of a “glow” in the sound of the oboe solo, and more of a feeling of innigkeit in the playing. Also, the triplet figures of the 1st violins needed to be liberated a little, and perhaps more soloistic playing.

On the whole, the 3rd and 4th movement worked much better, and orchestra and conductor seemed to have hit their stride here. The weight of sound I missed in the 1st movement was evident from the outset of the 3rd movement. There was much more of a sense of urgency throughout the Scherzo (Lebhaft). The first violins played the eighth-note passage (m. 476) beautifully. I loved the wonderful transition into the 4th movement, as well as the build-up of tension into m. 660 (Lebhaft). Throughout the movement, the balance was good, and kudos to the brilliant playing of the VSO brass. The woodwind playing at m. 815 to 826 was magnificent. So led a great transition into the final bars of the movement at m. 831 (Schneller), and the orchestra in turn gave him truly wonderful playing here. I feel that the ending would have made a greater impact had the final chord been written as a quarter note instead of a long whole note.

The audience gave the orchestra and conductor what I would call an ambivalent ovation. This was unfortunate, because it really took courage to programme this difficult symphony, a bold movement by a guest conductor still making an impression. I hope that management of the VSO would invite him back as a guest conductor on a regular basis. I would be very interested to follow the career and artistic development of this young conductor and musician.

Patrick May
February 6, 2018

Monday, February 5, 2018

Janusz Olejniczak plays Chopin

To hear Janusz Olejniczak play Chopin is like hearing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play Johann Strauss. There is a beguiling naturalness in the music making that makes it sound so “right” – in every inflection, every accent, every rubato taken. While it is true that great Chopin interpretation has extended far beyond the Polish border, it was obvious from Olejniczak’s playing this weekend that this music is in his blood, his body and soul.

The two concerts this weekend has been a first collaboration between Early Music Vancouver and the Vancouver Chopin Society. Part of Early Music Vancouver’s interest in this presentation lies in the fact that part of the recital was played on a beautiful 1852 Broadwood piano, lovingly restored by local piano restorer Marinus van Prattenburg. The idea behind the concert was for the audience to experience two very different sound worlds – the sound of a period instrument (Chopin died in 1849) as well as that of a modern Steinway grand. Other than the pleasure I derived from listening to this much loved music, hearing these two very different instruments had been in itself a fascinating experience.

Olejniczak began both recitals with Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth., first on the Broadwood, then on the Steinway, just to show the acoustical difference between these two instruments. The Broadwood has a narrower dynamic range but, under the hands of an artist who knew what he was doing with the instrument, not a narrower range of colours than the Steinway. The Steinway naturally had a much more commanding sound as well as a larger projection. With the Broadwood, I had the impression that I was eavesdropping on someone’s playing. Olejniczak created that intimate sound, or rather, created that palpable mood of intimacy, throughout the evening, and on both instruments, just a little more so on the Broadwood.

Between the two recitals, Olejniczak performed a good cross section of his more than fifty Mazurkas – Op. 17, No. 4, Op. 24, Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 30, No. 4, Op. 41, No. 2, and Op. 68, No. 2. There is a Polish word – zal – a word that represents the soul of a Pole. The basic meaning of the word is a bittersweet melancholy. But it also encompasses the feeling of suffering, sadness, of losing everything – a feeling that one sometimes feel when there is no sun and one is alone in a cold house. According to Liszt, the word can also mean “rage”, which is not only interesting but also paradoxical. Chopin’s music, even the most intimate ones, can have a lot of anger. Chopin himself admitted that most of his music is permeated with zal, and Liszt added that the word colours the whole of Chopin’s compositions.

It is also the music of exile, perhaps the most powerful source of inspiration for any artist.

Olejniczak’s performances of the Mazurkas contained all the aforementioned qualities. He employed much rubato in his playing of the Mazurkas, but always with impeccable taste, as well as a sense of - for lack of a better word - rightness.

In the two Mazurkas in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4, as well as Op. 68, No. 2, two works that contain some of the most desolate music the composer ever wrote, there was a feeling of deep sadness recollected from afar. In the Mazurka in C major, Op. 24, No. 2, Olejniczak conveyed the exoticism of both the opening Aeolian mode melody, which could be a rustic dance, or the singsong of a Polish street peddler, and the more lyrical, Lydian mode melody at mm. 21 to 36. Throughout both recitals, but especially during the Mazurkas, I had the feeling that Olejniczak was improvising, almost re-composing these works as he played.

This feeling of melancholy was carried through in Olejniczak’s choice of Waltzes he played, both on the Broadwood – the Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 69, No. 1 and Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2., the latter work being, for me, one of Chopin’s greatest works. In the difficult opening phrases of the Waltz in C-sharp minor, he had just the right amount of lilt as well as a beautiful inflection of those brief phrases. In the B section of the work, there was a gossamer lightness that was quite breathtaking. In Saturday’s performance, Olejniczak’s playing of the bass notes from m. 177 to the end, almost as a secondary voice, was particularly affecting.

In the Polonaise in A major, again played on the Broadwood on both evenings, there was a real feeling of dance in the opening measures, so often missing in performances bent on conveying the “bigness” of sound. In fact, Chopin expressly wrote only forte in the opening. I loved the way he played the opening trill at m. 41, with a palpable tension that immediately conveyed the drama of the entire section. In the tricky final measure of the Polonaise, Olejniczak added an extra bass octave before the A major chord to have more of a feeling of finality, something the composer may himself have done?

For the second recital, the artist played two of the Preludes, Op. 28 – the one in A major (No. 7) and the one in C minor (No. 20). In the C minor Prelude, Olejniczak beautifully but subtly brought out the middle register in the third iteration of the theme (m. 9).

O lejniczak’s playing of the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, again perfectly embodied the seemingly contradictory emotions in the word zal. From the somber opening chords to the frightening outburst of the B section, and back to the restless return of the opening theme, the pianist played as if taking us through the composer’s stream of consciousness. As well, his performance of the Nocturne in E minor, Op. posth., gave us a glimpse of the gorgeous sound he elicited from the Steinway, and brought out the otherworldly beauty of this early work.

On both evenings, the balance of the second half comprised of three large-scale works. I had not been so moved by the Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31, for a long time, as I was this weekend. In his last Vancouver recital, Murray Perahia played a note-perfect but, for me, emotionally ambivalent performance. It was nothing like the range of emotions and colours Olejniczak took us through in his playing. Every note in the opening triplets could be clearly heard, yet he managed to bring forth Chopin’s sotto voce marking, as well as conveying a sense of urgency with these few opening notes. And there was an ardent quality in his playing of the beautiful con anima section at m. 65.

The artist brought an uncanny freshness I did not think possible with the oft-played Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. As with all great Chopinists, there was a sense of totality, of organic unity, in Olejniczak’s approach towards the Ballade. The danger with a powerful modern piano is the possibility of an ugly or percussive sound, when someone “pushes” the instrument hard. Olejniczak can be a powerful player when he chose to be, but even at the most dramatic moment of this already dramatic work, the pianist’s tone was never forced – colossal, yes, but always round and musical. In the treacherous coda, his playing was utterly confident, and never betrayed even for a moment the possibility of failure. There was also an incredible lightness in the playing that intensified the excitement and tension of the music.

The Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53, perhaps the unofficial national anthem of Poland, his playing was simply thrilling. The dignity, pride, power, beauty, and rhythmic acuity of his playing reminded me only of Arthur Rubinstein, and I can think of no higher compliment. In the beginning of the E major section, there was a roar in the sound of the sforzando chord – a most interesting aural sensation. In the coda, Olejniczak built the music to such a pitch of excitement that the final chords at m. 179 became a catharsis.

Incredibly, this was the first appearance in Vancouver of this great artist, a charming and soft-spoken man who gave the impression, when he played, that he was merely playing for a few friends. Earlier this season, the Vancouver Chopin Society presented Seong-Jin Cho, a supremely talented young artist at the outset of his career. Now, we have a very different kind of artist, at the full maturity of his musical development. With Marc-Andre Hamelin, Rafal Blechacz, Andras Schiff, and Alexander Gavrylyuk still to play in the coming months, Vancouver audiences will have much wonderful music-making to look forward to.

February 5, 2018