Friday, May 25, 2018

Mahler 9th in Chicago

I had the privilege last Thursday to have attended a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, devoted solely to Mahler’s otherworldly Symphony No. 9 in D major. Any performance of any Mahler symphony is a special occasion, and this performance was one that I would remember for a long time to come.

Right at the outset of the first movement, I was aware of the richness of the Chicago strings, which possesses richness in sound, even in the delicate descending seconds of the second violins and the murmurings sextuplets of the violas. Salonen set a very good pace for the movement, and allowed the music to come into being. I got the feeling that he was gently guiding the musicians along, almost like a suggestion, rather than imposing his views upon the orchestra. The first shattering sounds of the movement, three bars before rehearsal number 6, already gave an indication of the awesome sonic resources of this ensemble. From the many solos scattered throughout the movement (indeed, throughout the symphony), it was obvious that every player in the orchestra is a master of his or her instrument.

In the second movement, Salonen, more than many other performances I had heard, really brought out the weirdness of Mahler’s sound world. The horns handled their solos at m. 13 with aplomb, and the appoggiaturas by the first horn at rehearsal 17 were perfectly placed. I loved the sound colour the contrabassoon conjured at rehearsal 18. At 14 bars before rehearsal number 23 (Wie zu Anfang), Salonen balanced the woodwinds so as to bring out the strangeness, the otherworldliness of Mahler’s sound world, almost like looking at a picture where the images are distorted. At 25 bars after rehearsal number 27 (Sehr gemächlich), the contrabassoon played its solo in a kind of mocking manner, with a great deal of irony. The conductor perfectly placed the two final chords of the movement, giving us the most incredible pianissimo.

The Rondo(Burleske) was played with all the roughness and brutality that the composer calls for. There was a real sense of forward drive throughout the movement. At rehearsal number 37, there was palpable warmth and richness emanating from the Chicago strings. 

This same feeling pervaded through the beginning of the great Adagio. Here, the strings played with an incredible richness and depth of feeling. I had never heard the horn solo at m. 17 (stark hervortretend) played with such beauty of sound and security of tone. In some ways, this was, for me, the most moving moment of the entire performance. At m. 28, the contrabassoon and the celli played their unison passage with the most profound depth, as if the sound was coming from some deep recess. At m. 77 and 78, the oboe and first clarinet played the brief motif with a very touching fragility and vulnerability. There was another very beautiful moment at m. 88 (Stets sehr gehalten), where Salonen allowed the music to just hang by a thread. At m. 95, the English horn really shone with its magnificent solo playing. The conductor did not over-indulge in the climatic half-note fff descending scale at m. 122 (Wieder zurückhaltend), but it was so well placed and executed that the return of the chorale theme at m. 126 became a great moment of catharsis. From here until the end, the musicians were really taking us all on a journey into the netherworld. The audience was spellbound by the music and music-making such that there must have been a full half-minute of silence before the ovation began.

I did not think this was a hear-on-sleeve Mahler performance, à laBernstein. Yet, I do not agree with a review that the music making was cool or detached. Salonen is not an acrobatic conductor, and his conducting appears (to me) to rely on the power of suggestion rather than an imposition of the will. I believe he is the kind of musician that tends to allow the music to speak for itself, which does not equate a lack of involvement. As a composer himself, he conducted Mahler’s work with a scrupulous attention to every detail in the score. The musicians of this great orchestra completed the performance with its astoundingly high level of execution. I, for one, found the whole experience intensely moving, and have been living in the sound world of that performance many days after the experience.

Patrick May

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Grand Finale

The Vancouver Chopin Society rounded out its 20thAnniversary Season with a highly satisfying recital by pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. The young pianist is no stranger to Vancouver audiences, as he is a frequent concerto soloist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the name Bach was almost synonymous with that of Busoni. Today, Bach/Busoni transcriptions seemed to have fallen out of favour with pianists, and Bach’s music are most often played without the “assistance” of other composers. Gavrylyuk’s choice of Bach/Busoni’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor- yes, theToccata and Fugue that is so much a part of Hollywood horror films – makes for a most welcomed choice in programming.

Gavrylyuk’s interpretation of this majestic work is firmly rooted in grand style of the 19thcentury, when pianists exploited (in the best sense of the word) the tonal resources and technical possibilities of the instrument. His pacing was excellent, and his pregnant silences in the opening of the Toccata were most effective. His playing of the fugue began simply, and his technical control of the instrument allowed the music to build in tension as well as intensity. 

In his essay, Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious, Alfred Brendel writes, “The combination of incongruous elements is generally regarded as a distinguishing feature of wit.” I had this statement in my mind as I enjoyed Gavrylyuk’s playing of Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Hob. XVI:32. The composer’s juxtaposition of the “serious” key of B minor and the quirky nature of the music, especially in the outer movements, filled this work with a humour most characteristic of Haydn. The opening of the first movement reminds me of children playing hide-and-seek, tiptoeing around and darting in and out of hiding places. Gavrylyuk played this movement with lovely fingerwork, and a beguiling lightness. The Menuetmovement was played with a charming innocence, not trying to make the music more than a lovely intermezzo between the outer movements. The third movement is a typical example of Haydn’s rough and tumble sense of humour. Once again, the high drama of the key of B minor is set against the hilarity of the music. Gavrylyuk relished every bit of the composer’s wit, playing the music in the manner of a Buster Keaton chase scene. The resulting effect was breathtaking.

The pianist concluded the first half of his recital with a selection of Chopin’s Twelve Etudes, Op. 10. The justly famous Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3, was played simply but lovingly. Gavrylyuk has a keen sense of the cantabile, and he managed to bring a sense of freshness to this very familiar piece of music and to make it a moving experience. In the F major Etude(No. 8), he managed to draw my attention to the beauty of the writing for the left hand, and not his amazing fingerwork in the right hand. I have certainly heard more dramatic interpretation of the Etude in F minor(No 9), but the pianist’s playing of it was probably closer to the composer’s intentions. There are only two indications of fortissimo in the score, and most of the dynamic indications range from pianoto ppp. He played the Etude in A-flat major(No. 10) with an incredible lightness and effortlessness in the right hand, and a keen sense of Chopin’s legatissimomarking in the left hand. The Etude in E-flat major(No. 11) was played with a palpable beauty of sound. Gavrylyuk certainly conjured up a storm in the so-called “Revolutionary”Etude in C minor(No. 12). There was a real feeling of surge in the arpeggios. His playing, dramatic as it was, never lost the cantabilenature of the writing in the left hand. I thought it was very wise of him to have a brief pause between Etudes, allowing the audience to really savour the unique character of each of these remarkable miniatures. 

The artist launched into Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 with incredible energy, and kept it up throughout the work. Gavrylyuk painted the work with the largest palette of tonal colours and the widest dynamic range. He obviously reveled in the sonority of the piano and brought out the sexual energy of the music. I did not think that he was trying to explore the mystical aspects of the music; rather, he took us on a musical and colouristic journey through the labyrinth complexity of Scriabin’s sound world. 

Alexander Gavrylyuk is known, and has a special affinity for, the works of Rachmaninoff. He presented three of the composers Preludes, and the 2ndedition of the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor. I remember the surging left hand of the Prelude in F-sharp minor, Op. 23, No. 1, as well as the dark colours that he managed to bring out. For me, the highlight of the set was his incredibly intense reading of the Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5. In the opening section of the work, he really conjured up in my mind the image of a troika speeding through the icy landscape of Siberia. The beautiful middle section had an emotive quality as well as a real sense of forward motion in the music. And I will always remember the shimmering quality, and the incredible evenness and lightness of his playing of the right hand figuration in the Prelude in G-sharp minor, Op. 32, No. 12.

The last work on the programme, Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minorwas simply magnificent. Less obviously “tuneful” than the second piano concerti or second symphony, this work already foreshadows at the stylistic and harmonic advances we would hear in the 4thpiano concerto. Throughout the performance, there was not a moment that I felt that this was anything less than a master pianist at work. Technically impregnable and sonically resplendent, Gavrylyuk brought to the fore the bell-like sonority one hears time and again throughout the work, as well as the brooding melancholy of the more lyrical passages. 

Of course the audience clamored for more after that masterful performance, and Gavrylyuk graciously granted us two encores – Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, in a transcription by Zoltan Kocsis, and Arcadi Volodos unbelievably virtuosic arrangement of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca. In the Vocalise, he brought out the music’s many textures in Kocsis’ idiomatic transcription. Volodos’ Rondo alla Turca arrangement is not for the faint-hearted, and Gavrylyuk’s playing of it was nothing short of astounding, so much so that I wanted to laugh out loud, because it was simply such an incredible pianistic stunt. His technique alone certainly earns him a place in the stratospheric high of a Horowitz, a Lhévinne, or a Barere.

This past week’s recital certainly ended this year concert season on a very high note. The concert was my first encounter with the artistry and pianism of Alexander Gavrylyuk. With recitals such as the one he gave in Vancouver, it seems that his artistic and musical future will be bright indeed. I hope that he will return to us soon, and often.

May 24, 2018

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

An Evening of Masterworks

Last Saturday the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presented a concert with a wonderfully appealing programme – Wagner’sLohengrinPrelude, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony.

I had missed Maestro Constantin Trinks’ last appearance with the orchestra, and I had never encountered Sarah Chang’s artistry in person. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to this performance.

With the Vorspielto Act I of Lohengrin, I would always remember Serge Koussevitzky’s admonition to the orchestra, “When my stick touches the air, you play”. This is really a perfect description to the ethereal pianissimoentrance by the violins, well executed by the violins. Although the strings of the orchestra lack the sheen of the greatest ensembles, it is nevertheless a performance of great splendor and subtlety. I would have wished for more subtle shadings in the crescendo and decrescendo of the first violins at mm. 13-14. There was also some glowingly beautiful wind playing throughout the brief work. I thought that the descending scale at five measures after rehearsal 3 could have had more richness in sound. Trinks had paced the work very well, and the A major chord at fifteen measure after rehearsal 3 was particularly effectively and beautifully placed.

With the famous entrance by the violin, we knew we were in the presence of a great artist. In the opening solo of the first movement, Chang opted to whisper rather than to shout, and the effective was arresting. I was immediately struck by the great beauty of her tone; her middle and lower registers have a palpably silken quality. In the second movement, I was moved by her eloquence and confiding tone. Her playing in this movement was like that of a musical conversationalist, and there was an appealing naturalness in her playing that one finds only in the greatest artists. Her playing of the third movement was filled with a sense of palpable joy and an effortless virtuosity.

Trinks accompanied the concerto effectively, though for me it was an accompaniment rather than a dialogue between orchestra and soloist. The big tune by the strings in the second movement, normally an almost cathartic moment, lacked a sense of urgency. In this slow movement, a feeling of intimacy in the orchestral playing was also lacking. At the beginning of the third movement, I missed a sense of anticipation, and the feeling of inevitability that leads to the entrance by the solo violin. As a result, the overall impression was a lack of totality in the performance, in spite of the absolutely brilliant playing by Chang.

I was particularly looking forward to the performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major(“The Great”), a work that this orchestra has not often played. The pacing of this symphony of “heavenly length” is particularly crucial, and I liked Trinks’ tempo choice in the first movement, and how he took time to let the music unfold. I liked the sound of the string tone in their playing of the main theme (three measures before letter A), conveying power but not aggressiveness. I do question the accelerandothat Trinks took in the build-up to the Allegro, ma non tropposection of the movement. I feel that it would have been more effective to let the tension build with sound rather than with speed. To my ears, the horn entry at fourteen measures after letter F too loud, thereby taking away the far-away quality of this theme. It must be very difficult for the conductor to gauge the two fffmarking by the composer in two spots of the first movement. Trinks missed the emotional impact in these two climatic moments; surely there could have been more of a sense of outburst in these crucial points without pushing the sound excessively? The tempo transition (piu moto) at twenty-five measures after letter N was very effectively paced. However, I did question the tempo change right before the end of the movement (thirteen measures after letter P). Again, the musical effect would have been greater without speeding up.

The haunting and alluring oboe solo at the beginning of the second movement was beautifully played; however, the staccato notes of the strings far too loud and aggressive, thereby taking away the sense of repose of this music. At twenty measures after letter E, I felt that there should have been more diminuendoas well as more of a sense of direction in the return to the main theme. Yet,the fffclimax at letter I was very effectively placed, creating a wonderful feeling of suspense in the pizzicatostring passage immediately following. The playing of the theme by the celli here had a beautifully elegiac quality that I found very moving. At the end of the second movement, I would prefer that there would be no ritard, because a slackening of tempo took away the tension of the music.

The playing of the third and fourth movements, in terms of both pacing and execution, was outstanding. In the opening of the scherzo, the strings had a buoyancy in sound that immediately conveyed the uplift of the music. Trinks’ tempo choice also brought out the liveliness of this movement. At thirty-seven measures after letter B, Trinks gauged the different gradations of sound masterfully. The wind playing in the Triosection was also particularly fetching. 

The fourth movement was played with great urgency, and a real sense of forward motion. The dance-like theme at letter C, almost prefiguring the Slavonic Dancesof Dvorak, had a naturalness and bounce. At the end of the movement, I had the feeling of having lived through an incredible journey of sound. 

It is courageous for any conductor to programme this difficult work by Schubert. In spite of the beauty of its many themes and the obvious greatness of the music, it is not the kind of crowd-pleasing piece for any conductor wanting to make an impression. I am certainly grateful to Constantin Trinks for bringing us the heavenly and otherworldly beautiful of this great symphonic masterpiece.

April 30, 2018