Tuesday, December 3, 2019

A Glorious "Messiah"

Early Music Vancouver’s presentation of Handel’s Messiah was probably the most overwhelmingly spiritual, emotional, and musical experience in all my years of encountering this familiar work. Last Saturday, details I had never heard leapt out from the score under the imaginative and inspiring direction of conductor Ivars Taurins. The Pacific Baroque Orchestra joined forces with the Vancouver Cantata Singers (sounding great under their director Paula Kremer) and four outstanding soloists who delivered a truly indelible and moving musical experience.

The opening Sinfony was played with great energy and a wonderful sense of occasion. When the A section was repeated, rather than merely playing it softer, as is the usual custom, Taurins varied the dynamics and colours a great deal more in the repeat.

I have rarely heard a performance where there was such a merging of the words being sung and the orchestral colours. In “Comfort ye”, tenor Thomas Hobbs mellifluous voice was resting on a sort of cushion of string sound. I liked the conductor’s tempo choice in the aria, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion”, giving the music a wonderful sense of movement. In the brief prestissimo introduction and the accompaniment to “For he is like a refiner’s fire”, conductor and string players conjured up with those rapid 16th-notes an effect like flickering flame. In the recitativo accompagnato and aria that follows, the string colours and the way the musicians played those two-note slurs matched perfectly bass Peter Harvey deeply-felt singing of “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” and “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”. 

In the aria, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd”, the tempo set by Taurins and the way the strings were coloured created a real sense of repose. As well, the brief postlude was truly beautifully played, and echoed the emotions of the words just being sung. In the aria, “He was despised”, the strings played the descending figures with a sense of real sorrow and vulnerability, matching perfectly the strikingly poignant singing of alto Krisztina Szabó. For me, the feeling of the aria was even more deeply felt in the repeat of the A section. There was an incredibly hushed quality in the music at the words, “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”. With the words “He gave his back to the smiters”, the attack of the dotted-rhythmic figures made a sound like hitting, evoking the image of Christ’s scourging. Then in the introduction to the bass aria, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together”, Taurins whipped up a real sense of urgency in the orchestral playing. 

The solo voices were uniformly excellent. Joanne Lunn’s singing of the recitatives conveyed a sense of wonder that I found incredibly moving: 

And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them… / And the angel said unto them: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy… / And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host.

Her singing of the aria, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” was exhilarating in its lightness as well as its sense of musical pulse. Lunn’s singing of the aria’s many melisma passages was breathtaking. In the aria, “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace”, Lunn handsomely handled the subtle shift from G minor to B-flat major in the opening phrases. Kirsztina Szabó’s singing of “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd” truly brought across the overwhelming compassion of the words. Tenor Thomas Hobbs has an acute sense of the timing of the music. In the brief recitative, “He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision”, he delivered the lines with an incredible sense of urgency. Peter Harvey sang the aria, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” with wonderful energy and a resounding virtuosity. In “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light”, he sang this great bass aria with real drama, making use of the brief eighth-note rests (for instance, at four measures after B) to great effect. Yet, in the recitative, “Behold I tell you a mystery” was sung with a confiding tone. 

The players of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra played with their usual high standard. In “The trumpets shall sound”, solo trumpet Alexis Basque shone with his beautiful shaping of phrases as well as its musicality. Having the two trumpets playing from the side of the choral loft during “Glory to God” was an inspired idea - Handel’s instructions are for the trumpeters to play “from a distance and rather softly.”

Last month’s Remembrance Day concert confirmed the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ status as one of the city’s finest choral groups. In that concert as well as for this past weekend’s Messiah performance, the group sang with their usual musicality, but also with intelligence and imagination. The singers responded to the lively tempo in “And the glory the glory of the Lord” and sang with amazing lightness and agility. In “And He shall purify” and in “All we like sheep”, the melismata were sung with a silken smoothness. In “And He shall purify”, there was a purity of sound and a lightness of texture.  There was a genuine feeling of exhilaration in “For unto us a Child is born”. The chorus “Surely, surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” was delivered with great energy and power. In “And with His stripes we are healed” the choir sang the music with varied, almost instrument-like, articulation, and a wonderful flexibility. There was an appropriately mocking quality and a suitable disjointedness in the vocal line, in their singing of “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him”. This disjointed quality of the vocal line also worked to wonderfully dramatic effect in “Let us break their bonds asunder”.  

The justly famous “Hallelujah” chorus was sung with a real sense of occasion, and certainly with the requisite majesty and grandeur. The varied dynamics in the phrase, “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords” added to the drama of the music. The choir sang the opening of “Since by man came death” (Grave) with beautiful blending, an organic wholeness, and gorgeous tone quality. I loved the slight decrescendo at the ending (Adagio) of “But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”. The singers acquitted themselves admirably in the very exposed opening of “Blessings and honour, glory and pow’r be unto Him”. The great “Amen” was sung with great depth of feeling, giving this already memorable evening a real sense of communion.

I believe it is no exaggeration to say that we live in a post-Christian age. That said, the fact that people flock year after year to performances of Handel’s Messiah tells me that we, all of us, no matter what we profess to believe (or not), are in search of something beyond our everyday existence, something transcendent. For me, this performance of Handel’s masterwork had truly brought these divinely inspired work alive. 

Wishing everyone a joyous Christmas and a new year that will bring a return to peace for so many parts of the world.

                                                                                                            Patrick May

Monday, November 25, 2019

Kevin Kenner

Pianist Kevin Kenner made his second Vancouver recital appearance yesterday, playing a musically satisfying performance that represented the highest level of music making.

The concert began with Haydn’s Sonata No. 48 in C major, Hob XVI:48, an unusual two-movement work that highlights Haydn’s healthy sense of humour. The first movement, Andante con espressione, is filled with pregnant pauses, and a mock sense of profundity. Like a master comic, Kenner understood perfectly the sense of timing and humour. He made the most of the whimsical nature of the music, and indeed played the movement “con espressione”. The second movement, a breathless presto, gave us a different picture of the composer’s unbuttoned humour. The artist’s rendition of this movement showcased the rollicking humour inherent in so much of the composer’s music.

Robert Schumann’s Davidbündlertänze, Op. 6 contrasts the composer’s most profound utterances with movements that are rather more mischievous and rambunctious. Kenner brought out the duo nature of the composer’s personality, and suffused the more introverted movements with an inner beauty and glow. As well, the extroverted movements were filled with a kind of a childlike, gentle humour. Indeed, the humour inherent in this work is more along the lines of a gentle chuckle, rather than that of a hearty laugh.

It is easy to forget that Chopin lived a happy and untroubled childhood, and much of (especially) his early works are filled with good cheer, and far from gloomy. Kenner’s played the set of early Mazurkas like an improvisation, adding some of his own extemporizations to connect the different dances. This is completely along the lines of the “performance practice” of early 20thcentury pianists, perhaps out of fashion today with our obsession with textual fidelity, but a totally valid view of looking at the music.

Of Chopin’s four Scherzi, the Scherzo No. 4 in E major (Op. 54) is the only one that comes close to the idea of a “joke”. For me, this is the most technically – not to mention musically – challenging scherzo of the four. Playing it is a real high-wire act. Kenner negotiated the treacherous path of this late great work with a tremendous sense of ease and elegance, but he also struck the balance between spontaneity and a carefully thought out conception of the music. The playing here also had a great sense of beguiling lightness. The simplicity and directness of Kenner's playing of this work reminded me of Mr. Rubinstein, and it was a performance that had me sitting at the edge of my seat.

What a great sense of the art of programming to conclude the concert with a selection of works by Paderewski! It was a good reminder that other than being one of the original celebrity pianists, Paderewski was and is a skillful composer with a voice of his own. The pianist played these neo-classical - or neo-romantic - works (they remind me of compositions by Fritz Kreisler which the composer passed off as works by obscure Baroque composers) with a great deal of flair and panache. Even the oh-so-popular (not so much today as it was many decades) Menuetsounded fresh under his hands. Kenner concluded his performance with an intimate, limpid, and sensitive performance of Paderewski’s Nocturne in B-flat major.  

It was very fortunate for Vancouver audiences to have heard, within the space of a couple of weeks, two great recitals by two highly original, albeit very different, artists. It was sad for me to observe the many empty seats in the hall yesterday – audiences today seem to only want to flock to performances by “star” performers, even ones who sometimes have dubious artistic integrity or musical maturity. With the large number of young people in the city studying music, it is my hope that their teachers would encourage them to devote their time not just to practicing, but to come out and hear live performances of great music, and to immerse themselves in this enormous ocean of music culture.

Patrick May

Monday, November 11, 2019

An Astonishing Debut

Lightning struck the audience at the Vancouver Playhouse yesterday afternoon when pianist Zlata Chochieva played her debut recital for The Vancouver Chopin Society.

At risk of merely writing a string of superlatives, her playing of Chopin’s Etudes Op. 25 stands comparison with that of Alfred Cortot in inspiration. Technically and pianistically, the finish of her playing stands on a class of its own. 

After a beautifully euphonious performance of the Etude in A-flat (No. 1), Chochieva took my breath away with the nimbleness and agility in her playing of the Etude in F minor (No. 2). Her sparing use of pedal (indicated by Chopin) gave the music a rarely heard clarity and crispness. After technically impregnable playing in the Etude in F major (No. 3) and Etude in A minor (No. 4), Chochieva truly brought out the scherzando quality in the Etude in E minor, and her playing of the E major middle section was absolutely ravishing, and beautifully shaded. 

Another highlight of the afternoon was her miraculous playing of the Etude in G-sharp minor (No. 6), with playing of thirds that sounded more like splashes of colours, and an effortlessness that gave the music a rarely heard mischievous quality. Moreover, she made us aware of the beauty of Chopin’s writing for the left hand. The pianist’s playing of the Etude in C-sharp minor (No. 7) was deeply felt, with a left hand that truly sounded like a cello. There was an engaging lightness in her playing of the Etude in D-flat major (No. 8) and G-flat major (No. 9). The octaves at the beginning of the Etude in B minor were truly thunderous and fiery, and her playing of the octave melody in the middle section gave the music a real sense of melancholy. She was in control of every note in her playing of the Etude in A minor (No. 10), a work that strikes fear into the heart of less intrepid pianists. A rousing and rich-toned performance of the Etude in C minor (No. 12) ended the first half of the recital on a real high note, and left us already wishing for more.

Rachmaninov is a composer that is obviously close to Zlata Chochieva’s heart, and it really showed in her performance of the composer’s music in the second half. The works that she chose revealed the many facets of the composer’s own musical influences. The Bach-Rachmaninov Violin Suite is actually a transcription of the PreludeGavotte and Giga of the Violin Partita in E major, BWV 1006. Chochieva’s playing brought out the joyful spirit of this music, the relentless feeling of chase in the Prelude, a real sense of bounce in the Gavotte, and an almost reckless abandon in the Giga. Rachmaninov’s transcription gives this originally sparse music a fuller harmonic palette, something that Chochieva exploited - in the best sense of the word - to the fullest. Her playing of Rachmaninov/Bizet’s Minuet from the “L’Arlésienne” Suite gave the music its requisite sweetness and Gallic charm. 

Rachmaninov’s transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of the most incredible pianistic “stunts” ever conceived by any composer. Chochieva’s playing of this work matched the original orchestral version in the colours she conjured from the keyboard. Most incredibly – and this is true throughout the afternoon – the word “technique”, or the thought of how “well” she was playing the piano – was far from my mind, so thoroughly compelling her music-making was. I had long admired rather than loved Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme by Corelli, Op. 42, until yesterday afternoon. I believe this is a work that needed the hands of a truly great pianist to bring off, and Chochieva was that pianist yesterday. Pianist Glenn Gould expressed Rachmaninov’s skills in writing in variation form, and had actually considered performing the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - it is tantalizing to think how such a performance would have come off. Indeed, in this set of Corelli variations, one hears similarities in the piano writing to the celebrated Paganini variations. In the twenty or so minutes of the work, the composer thoroughly exploited every aspect of the theme by Corelli. And yesterday, Chochieva herself exploited every aspect, every colour and shading that the composer had written. It was without question an electrifying performance of this rarely heard work. 

I am certain that the audience would have willingly stayed for many encores after such a performance. Chochieva gave us a deliciously played Etude in G-flat major (Op. 10, No. 5) by Chopin, the so-called “Black key” Etude.

What a way it was to begin a concert season. This is one of the most thoroughly technically perfect, and musically insightful performances, from a musician of any age, I have heard in a long time. Chochieva is already a master artist, and we look forward to hearing much more from her in future, and we hope that her first visit to Vancouver will not be her last.

Patrick May

Friday, November 8, 2019

Two Views of Daniil Trifonov

I had been greatly anticipating Daniil Trifonov’s concerto debut with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. I had just a couple of weeks earlier heard the pianist gave a ravishing and searing account of the composer’s 4th piano concerto with the Seattle Symphony, and had been looking forward to hearing Trifonov’s interpretation of the “Rach 3”.
It pains me to write that Trifonov’s performance with the Vancouver Symphony was a bitter disappointment for me – in fact, it took me this many weeks before I am able to put these brief thoughts to “paper”. From the outset of the performance, the haunting melody for the piano simply could not be heard. I could not blame it on where I was seating, as I had a seat in one of the relatively better acoustical area of the Orpheum. In fact, most of what Trifonov was doing could not be heard above the orchestra. Moreover, there was no semblance of collaboration between soloist and conductor, and music director Otto Tausk appeared to be simply trying to keep up with the pianist. In addition, there seemed to have been a lack of energy or passion, or a sense of direction, in Trifonov’s playing that evening. Even the many climatic moments of the work left me feeling underwhelmed.
Speaking of the Orpheum’s acoustics, I got chatting with a couple that sat beside me, who said they had just moved to Vancouver from London (England). At the conclusion of the concerto, the gentleman turned to me and said, “You really need a new concert hall in this city.”
Because of my disappointment at Trifonov’s Vancouver performance, I had been reluctant to put on his new recording of the same concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. I eventually did, and heard a stunning performance of the work. It was only in hearing Trifonov’s recording that I think I understood what he was trying to do in Vancouver. It seems to me that the pianist was not just another soloist out to impress, but was trying to weave the piano part of the concerto within the orchestral fabric in order to produce an organic whole. At all times, Trifonov took pains to bring out the intensely lyrical and spiritual qualities inherent in the music. It came off in the performance with the Philadelphians, but certainly not in Vancouver. Thrilling as the Philadelphia performance is, I found Trifonov’s performance of this concerto with Nézet-Séguin much more than a thrill ride, but an intensely moving musical experience. It was also a treat to behold the playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Nézet-Séguin, which seems to be once again playing with the lushness and beauty of sound (without sacrificing clarity of texture) as it did under Stokowski and Ormandy. I was reminded of Rachmaninov’s own statement that he used to compose with the sound of this orchestra in his mind.
I certainly hope Trifonov would grace Vancouver with his presence once again, perhaps in a performance by himself, as he did on several previous occasions. Perhaps he would feel more inspired to give us a performance that does full justice to his tremendous talent and artistry.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A New Beginning

The Seattle Symphony opened its new season this past Saturday under its new music director, Thomas Dausgaard. When Ludovic Morlot announced his departure from the orchestra, the organization settled on a relatively safe choice in Dausgaard, who was already known to the musicians and the city as Principal Guest Conductor.
Saturday’s concert seemed to vindicate that choice, as the chemistry between conductor and orchestra was readily apparent.

Dausgaard looked to his Danish roots, and opened the concert with Carl Nielsen’s Overture to Maskarade. The musicians responded well to Dausgaard’s direction and played this uplifting music with great verve as well as a bright, open sound.

The choice of engaging pianist Daniil Trifonov was probably the guarantee for a full house for the performance. The soloist’s vehicle was Rachmaninov’s rarely played Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40. If anyone could be a champion of this “orphan” of a work of the composer, it would be Trifonov. The artist gave a barnstorming reading of the concerto, identifying totally with the Rachmaninov idiom as well as the brooding, dark colours of the music. He played the outer movements with a real sense of the propulsive quality of the score. In the second movement, he gave the music a feeling of eerie stillness, yet keeping its forward momentum. Unlike some of today’s “star” pianists, Trifonov really does live up to his reputation. His effortless pianism as well as, even by today’s standards, stratospheric technique are truly astounding. 

By the time Rachmaninov wrote this concerto, he had been living outside of Russia for some time. He had been exposed to musical influences such as Jazz – he especially admired the piano playing of Art Tatum - and film music. This work (and this is by no means a criticism) betrays an eclectic mixture of styles, even though it still retains Rachmaninov’s unique harmonic colours and brooding melancholy. Trifonov navigated the shifting moods of the work very successfully, and infused the concerto with a sense of coherence and organic unity.

I was looking forward to the orchestra’s performance of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, as it had been a long time since I heard the composer’s youthful tone poem. The famous opening section was well played, and filled with tension, although I did feel that the trumpets could have sounded a bit more “distant” when intoning the famous C-G-C rising motif. Benaroya Hall’s beautiful organ sounded resplendent under the hands of Joseph Adam, particularly with the big C major chord at m. 19. 

The Seattle Symphony strings played the theme at m. 35 (Mässig langsam, mit Andacht) with great warmth and beauty of tone. Concertmaster Noah Geller soared with his violin solos, and the clarinet solo at m. 194 (sehr ausdruckvoll) had a beautiful quality and was very movingly played. The celli and basses achieved a real pianissimo– not only the sound, but also the pianissimoquality - playing the rising motif at m. 201. The strings again shone at m. 230 (allmählich etwas weniger langsam) with the richness and beauty of their tone. The orchestra achieved a lovely shimmering in their playing of the etwas lebhaftersection at m. 252. 
On the whole, I thought that Thomas Dausgaard’s reading of the score was very successful. He infused the music with a tension that I did not find (as much) in his last Strauss outing with Eine Alpensinfonie, well played as it was. Only in the ending of Zarathustradid I feel that there could have been more of a sense of enigma, of mystery.

The Seattle Symphony’s upcoming  season is filled with many ambitious projects, no doubt showcasing the talents of its new music director. I hope that Dausgaard’s tenure in Seattle will be a long and fruitful one. I was certainly happy to have had the opportunity to return to beautiful Benaroya Hall and enjoyed the performance by this wonderful orchestra.

Patrick May

Monday, August 12, 2019

Rigoletto in Seattle

Seattle Opera opened its 2019-2020 season with Verdi’s Rigoletto. Although the company seemed to have long departed from its summer Wagnerian tradition, the quality of the music making made the trip to the Emerald City worthwhile.

It is quite rare to witness an opera production where all the voices are so consistently good. From the major roles to the relatively smaller parts like Countess Ceprano, Count Monterone, Giovanna, and Sparafucile (who stole the show with his powerful voice and the force of his personality), the company had surely assembled a vocal ensemble of exceptionally high quality. 

Some day we will see a portrayal of Duke of Mantua that conveys the cynicism as well as the jaded-in-life qualities that, for me, this character is filled with. Liparit Avetisyan’s beautiful voice has a bright and ringing quality that makes it very appealing to hear. If he continues to develop, he could, in time, be singing meatier and weightier tenor roles. Perhaps my only “complaint” is that, in spite of his best efforts, he made it difficult for us to detest the character! 

On opening night, soprano Madison Leonard displayed incredible vocal control over every aspect of her challenging role. Her singing of “Caro nome”, in addition to displaying incredible vocal control, convincingly brought forth the innocence of her character and the feelings of a young girl in love for the first time.

Seattle favourite Lester Lynch brought to the title role Rigoletto a human and humane quality that made the final tragedy all the more heartbreaking and poignant. He successfully conveyed the conflicting feelings of a father, torn by his almost obsessive love for his daughter and the shame of seeing her shame. The confrontation between father and daughter in Act II was musically electrifying. 

Conductor Carlo Montanaro controlled every facet of Verdi’s complex score, and his relatively brisk tempi brought a sense of urgency and tension we do not often hear. Certainly he brought out beautiful playing from members of the Seattle Symphony. For me, Mary Lynch’s oboe solo that introduces “Tutte le feste al tempio” was particularly heartfelt and affecting. This is surely an opera conductor who will go far. 

I must say that I was worried when I read the notes by director Lindy Hume and Scholar in Residence Naomi André, with words like “misogynistic”, “destructive parents”, and “toxic masculinity” filling the pages. Fortunately, their rhetoric appears worse than the production, which turned out to not more than setting the opera in the present day. Apparently, the director was inspired by the shenanigans of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi when she decided to update the opera. In the programme notes, she explained why she simply had to update the opera, to make this “Renaissance-era codpiece-cloak-and-hose setting” relevant to today’s audience. Apologies to Victor Hugo for not making this story relevant!

Such is the climate of antagonism towards religion today that the director felt it necessary to insert two Cardinals amongst the Duke’s entourage, who also took part in Gilda’s kidnapping! Other than revealing the director’s own biases, this little touch makes no dramaticsense, and certainly added nothing to the story.

The problem with such updating is that it made the human relationships in the opera meaningless, even irrelevant. When Rigoletto confronted Gilda in Act II, where the young girl – looking very disheveled and wearing nothing more than a man’s shirt – dressing Rigoletto in modern vest and pants, rather than the vulgar jester’s costume indicated by Verdi, took away completely the shock and horror of this pivotal scene. And perhaps such is the climate of our sexualized society, that Maddalena’s seduction of the Duke involved a highly graphic “table dance”. Clever perhaps, but was this really necessary?

Instead of looking at Verdi from our 21stcentury perspective, should we not place ourselves within the context and sensibilities of Verdi’s times in order to really understand and appreciate the drama?

I believe that even the famous “La donna è mobile” is not Verdi thinking that women are fickle, but it is, with a supreme sense of irony, the composer chiding menfor not thinking with their brains, but with other parts of their anatomy.

Perhaps we should end with the rather more inspiring words of beloved opera commentator Father M. Owen Lee, who’s recent death deprived us of some of the most insightful words into the operatic canon. In his essay on Rigoletto, titled “When Verdi’s Fathers Sing” (Lee, M. Owen, First Intermissions, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 22-23) Father Lee wrote not about “destructive parents”, but the real role of the father: 

“In Italy it is the father who presides over the only permanent social unit: the family. Governments occupying forces, kings, popes, political regimes come and go, but the family is always there, providing the pattern for the larger structures of state and even church…Understanding this patriarchal tradition, so strong in Virgil and Verdi, is the beginning of understanding so many things about Italy that confound the non-Italian, from papal infallibility to The Godfather. Italy’s long patriarchal tradition is not without its dangers, as Verdi’s operas tell us again and again. But no one really understands Verdi, or Italy, who does not understand that tradition, for it shaped both country and composer.”

Perhaps our stage directors should, if they are able to, look deeply into the score, and not their own political agendas, when they try to reveal the secrets imbedded within these great works of art. Fortunately for us, no amount of “-isms” could destroy Verdi’s timelesswork of art. Even more fortunate for me, it was the musicians and singers who made Verdi’s masterpiece meaningful, not directors who think they know better.

Patrick May


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Vancouver Debut - Kate Liu

Pianist Kate Liu made her much anticipated recital debut yesterday. In case you haven’t heard, she was the bronze-medal winner of the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, as well as the Polish Radio prize for best performance of a mazurka. Those who came expecting an avalanche of Chopin may have been disappointed at the programme, but it has been almost four years since the Chopin competition, and we should not be surprised that any artist would want to expand her repertoire. She had certainly not chosen a programme for the faint-hearted, but one that challenged every aspect of her musical and pianistic abilities. 

Liu began her performance with Brahms’ Ballades, Op. 10. These are unusual for Brahms’ early music because unlike the sonatas or variations, these are not virtuosic works by any means, but almost foreshadow those wonderful late opuses that Brahms was to write at the end of his life. Liu played these pieces almost like a series of ruminations, looking very much inwardly at the music. To be sure, there was drama when drama was called for, such as in the shattering climax of the Ballade in D minor, Op. 10, No. 1. At the return of the A section, Liu played the left hand triplets that conjured the disquieting nature of the original ballad, evoking in my mind an impression of one injured. 

I was very taken with the beauty of her sound, and how she voiced the octaves and chords at the beginning of the Ballade in D major, Op. 10, No. 2. There may be those who wish for greater drama in the Allegro non troppo section, but an examination of the score reveals that Brahms only wrote a single, very brief fortissimo indication. Even in the relatively stormier Ballade in B minor, Op. 10, No. 3, the dynamic indications range from pianississimo (ppp) to forte only, with many more indications in the softer dynamic ranges. In the beautiful Ballade in B major, Op. 10, No. 4, with the descending figures in the opening foreshadowing the late Intermezzo in B minor, Op, 119, No. 1, Liu really achieved a sense of repose. In the Piu Lento section, there was real depth of sound, and a feeling of absolute stillness. She certainly paid much more than lip service to Brahms’ indication of Col intimissimo sentimento. These are perhaps very personal interpretations to these early Brahms works. That said, Liu was doing no more than working (hard) to bring out what the composer asks for, a really remarkable achievement for someone so young. 

Of all of Chopin’s works, I believe that the mazurkas invite the greatest range of interpretative views. The inevitable question is whether the artist penetrated the composer’s soul with these, Chopin’s most personal and original works. The answer here was and is a resounding yes. Kate Liu painted Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, Op. 59, No. 1, on a large canvas. She played this large-scale miniature in a spacious manner, and lavished her attention to the many pauses and spaces within the music. At times, it almost sounded as if she was improvising. Her playing of the Mazurka in A-flat, Op. 59, No. 2, brought out the elegance of this music, and her phrasing here was truly magical. She brought us back to the world of the Polish countryside with her idiomatic performance of the Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 59, No. 3. I also liked her slightly wistful approach to the F-sharp major section.

Two short works concluded the first half of Liu’s recital. Liu is not a pianist with a big sound. That said, her playing of Rachmaninoff’s Etude-tableaux in E-flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5 and Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 10 in F minor(“Appassionata”) revealed the richness of the sound she evoked from the piano, a sound that is never ugly or percussive. Certainly these works, which most pianists would use as a mere vehicle to demonstrate his or her technical abilities, made me feel that she had thought through these works carefully. In the Liszt especially, there was an easy elegance that I found appealing. It is interesting that it was in these relatively virtuosic works that showed her to be very much a thinking musician.

The second half of the recital was taken up with one very large-scale work – Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8, the last of the three so-called “war sonatas”. Liu successfully navigated through the bleak soundscape of the first movement, giving it a sense of coherence and totality. The second movement (Andante sognando) once again highlighted the beauty of her sound as well as the lyricism of her playing. Liu more than rose to the technical challenges laid down by the composer in the third movement, and her blistering, almost orchestral, playing of the third movement left the piano limp and the audience breathless. We would of course forgive her for not wanting to play any encore after such a performance.

Sunday’s recital confirmed my view that Kate Liu is not “just” another fire-breathing virtuoso with steel fingers, but a musician and artist with a carefully considered view to whatever she is playing. She is of course only at the outset of her artistic journey. For now, I only hope that she is “done” with the competition circuit, because I believe that what she needs is to strike out on her own path and find her place within the artistic firmament.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Return of Nelson Goerner

Nelson Goerner’s last Vancouver recital of Bach and Beethoven left a deep impression on me, and so it was with eager anticipation that I attended his concert yesterday afternoon.

The recital began with Brahms’ autumnal Klavierstücke, Op. 119. Goerner’s conception of the Intermezzo in B minor(Op. 119, No. 1) was one that stressed textual clarity of the voices, rather than the richness of the harmony. Perhaps it is because of this approach that conjured in my mind’s eyes a sparse and desolate musical landscape. The Intermezzo in E minor (Op. 119, No. 2) was played with a very good forward motion, and just a hint of the agitatothe composer calls for. His playing of the E major theme at m. 35 brought out the inner beauty of the music. I loved the breathtaking lightness and gracefulness with which he played the Intermezzo in C major(Op. 119, No. 3). Goerner’s account of the Rhapsodie in E-flat major(Op. 119, No. 4) stressed, I believe, the horizontal rather than the vertical aspect of the music. It was playing that was impassioned and impetuous, but never at the expense of textual clarity.

Goerner set a high bar for himself with his magisterial interpretation of Beethoven’s HammerklavierSonata (Op. 106) in his last Vancouver appearance. No less bracing was his account of the composer’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57. There was and is something titanic about Goerner’s approach to Beethoven, which led me to wonder if this might have been how pianists like Busoni or Eugen d’Albert played these works. The artist towered over any technical demands the composer calls for, and was in control of every element of the vast canvas. In the brief theme and variations, there was an organic flow from the theme to the variations and then back to the theme again, as well as a sense of inevitability in the logic of the flow of the music. There was no doubt in my mind that this had been the most convincing playing of a Beethoven sonata I have heard in Vancouver in recent memory. 

I last heard Schumann’s Papillons(Op. 2) in a recital by Murray Perahia a few years back. Fine as that interpretation was, it paled in comparison with Goerner’s much more imaginative and vivid playing. The pianist succeeded in bringing out the unique characteristics of each of the movements. His playing of the rapid mood changes in movement ten (vivo) was simply thrilling. In movement 11, I loved how Goerner ravishingly shaped and voiced the phrase at mm. 6-7, mm. 18-19, mm. 54-55, and again at mm. 62-63. In the Finale, he succeeded in bringing out the slightly whimsical character of the music, and ended the work, as the saying goes, with a whimper and not with a bang.

Knowing the awesome technical ability of the pianist, it was not surprising that his playing of Schumann’s Toccata(Op. 7) would be technically impregnable. What was amazing was that he managed to make this somewhat awkward and technically almost cruel work sounding musical. It was brave of the pianist to have programmed this work. Certainly he carried it off with no less than absolute aplomb and confidence. 

I had slight reservations about Emanuel Ax’s Chopin interpretation from last week’s recital. I can say unreservedly that Nelson Goerner is a genuine Chopin player. In the Nocturne in C minor(Op. 48, No. 1), the opening section was played with a frightening stillness, and even more so in the Poco piu lentosection (m.25) – really giving the impression of the calm before the storm. His playing of the demanding middle section was epic. The Nocturne in E-flat major(Op. 55, No. 2) was simply stated, and was played with a tinge of beautiful sorrow, a sense of regret, as well as a real sense of organic unity from first note to last. 

Even in today’s world full of young keyboard titans, not many can truly capture the elegance and style of Chopin’s Andante spinato et Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22. Nelson Goerner certainly did bring off this work brilliantly yesterday. The opening andantewas played with a ravishing sound as well as a beautiful flow. The difficult polonaisewas played not only with technical assurance – something many of today’s pianists have in spades – but with panache, and with a real sense of rightness stylistically. It was a performance that deservedly brought the audience to its feet.

Goerner gave us two encores – Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth., played with an otherworldly beauty, and Francis Poulenc’s Caprice Italien(from the Napoli Suite), played with utter charm and a breathtaking disregard for the work’s technical demands. 

Nothing in yesterday’s recital distracted me from my thought that Nelson Goerner is one of today’s major pianists. For those who had not heard him play, or do not own one of his many fine recordings, I urge that you remember this name, and try to experience his artistry as soon as you can.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Musical Experiences

Saturday, March 23rd

Taking advantage of our niece’s Times Square apartment, we spent a week in New York City to sample the riches of its cultural offerings. And what offerings they were!

Arriving early in the morning, we rested for much of the day and attended the evening performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s Tosca. Sir David McVicar’s production, with John MacFarlane’s sumptuous sets, take advantage of the MET’s vast stage and aim for absolute realism. The Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Castel Sant’ Angelo were as close to “the real thing” as can be imagined. This makes perfect sense because no other opera is more tied to its setting than Tosca– Rome. The locations of all three acts are actual places in Rome anyone can visit today.

Jennifer Rowley’s (Tosca) and Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi) were vocally and dramatically a good match for each other. But for me it was Wolfgang Koch’s portrayal of Scarpia, as well as his interaction with Tosca, that captured my attention. In spite of this opera’s title, the work could just as convincingly be called Scarpia, for it is the evil spirit of this character that pervades the entire drama. Indeed, the very first thing we hear in Act I is the dramatic and manacing Scarpia motif. 

Koch’s singing and acting of the role of Baron Scarpia is indeed masterful, in turn menacing, fawning, and lustful. At the conclusion of Act I, when Puccini’s ingenious theatrical instincts combines the height of the Te Deumwith Scarpia’s line, “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio,”, Koch’s Scarpia knelt and, in an exaggerated gesture, struck his breast three times, the Catholic sign for “Mea Culpa”. The end of this first act also afforded us the opportunity to experience, alas too briefly, the power and beauty of the MET chorus. 

Saturday’s performance of Tosca’s Act II had to be the dramatic highlight of the evening. The lighting of Scarpia’s richly appointed office, with his underlings surrounding him, gave the impression of a scene from The Godfather, and the interaction between Tosca and Scarpia gave the impression of two archetypes, two strong emotions pitted against each other. In Tosca’s Vissi d’arte, Rowley paced the aria beautifully. Before her final line (“perché me ne rimuneri cosi?”), she took a very pregnant pause (Puccini indicates a luftpausehere) – perhaps not what the composer had written, but it worked in this instance. The scene between Scarpia and Tosca was electrifying, and genuinely frightening.

Carlo Rizzi conducted the MET orchestra with a real sense of urgency and drama throughout. In Act II, when Tosca intoned the line, “Questo è il bacio di Tosca”, the orchestra’s electrifying playing of the chords made the entire scene all the more horrifying. At the beginning of Act III, Rizzi evoked a wonderful atmosphere from the orchestra, and the clarinet solo at 11 was filled with a real sense of despair. 

With all the dramatic tension, it is all too easy to forget about poor Cavaradossi. Indeed his “E lucevan la stelle” was beautifully shaped and paced. Calleja sang the line “le belle forme disciogliea dai veli” with an incredible, and incredibly controlled, diminuendo.

Toscadoes not tug at the emotional heartstrings like La Bohemeor Madama Butterfly, it doesn’t thrill us with vocal pyrotechnics like Turandot, and it is not harmonically innovative like La fanciulla del West. But a great performance of Tosca, such as the one I witnessed last Saturday, can leave us gaping in horror at the battle between these emotional archetypes. 

For me, all the elements came together on that Saturday performance - the absolute commitment and incredibly high level of singing, great playing by the orchestra, as well as the dramatic involvement of all the principals – it made for the most affecting and riveting ToscaI have experienced. It is great to be back in this great opera house.

Monday, March 25th

In 1853, upon finishing a scene in one of his Ring operas, Wagner wrote to Liszt, “My friend! I am in a state of wonderment! A new world stands revealed before me…everything within me seethes and makes music. Oh, I am in love!” I experienced some of the composer’s feeling of exaltation after attending the MET’s season premiere performance of Die Walküre. For me, this performance was the most theatrically and musically overwhelming experience I have had in a long while. 

Conductor Philippe Jordan drew truly beautiful playing from the orchestra. He led a performance that was nuanced, passionate, and one that had a sense of totality of Wagner’s vast canvas. The strings and woodwinds really shone in the beauty of sound they produced throughout the evening. 

There has been much attention on Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde. For me, her dramatic involvement in the role was even more compelling than her vocal prowess (which was considerable). She really captured the transition from a boisterous warrior, dedicated solely to doing her father’s will, to someone touched by love, having witnessed the passion between Siegmund and Sieglinde.

For me, the voice that caught my ear had to be Eva-Maria Westbrock’s Sieglinde. She sang with an emotive quality that I found absolutely compelling. The brief passage she sang after she was told that she was carrying Siegmund’s child was simply thrilling, certainly the vocal highlight of the evening. Westbrock was well matched in vocal beauty and dramatic ability by Stuart Skelton’s Siegmund. Günther Groissböck made for a manacing Hunding, much more physically abusive towards Sieglinde than we are used to seeing. Greer Grimsley was a commanding Wotan, and successfully portrayed the god’s feeling of helplessness as his plans unraveled one after another. His farewell to Brünnhilde was filled with both compassion and humanity. 

The stage machinery functioned without a hilt the night of the performance. I feel that Robert Lepage’s concept and design for the operas was truly ingenious. Using a simple series of metal beams as well as extremely effective lighting and projections, we see before our eyes the transformation from forest to Hunding’s home, from rocky mountain heights to Brünnhilde’s place of magical sleep. I believe that only with the MET’s awesome technical capabilities could this production be carried out. 

After the performance, I could not help but think how Wagner’s tale of gods and men remain relevant today as it did when it was first performed. How like Wotan are we today, when we think we have the ingenuity to control every element of our lives, not seeing the many other elements that are unraveling beyond our control.

Tuesday, March 26th

was happy to learn that Jaap van Zweden, the New York Philharmonic’s music director, would be conducting during our week’s stay. I had long admired Maestro van Zweden (along with a long line of distinguished conductors) for his work with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, elevating it to a truly world class orchestra.

The programme is one that showcases the Philharmonic’s many strengths. The evening began with Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark. It is difficult to believe that so many of Ives’ groundbreaking works are now more than a century old. The Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein had begun championing the work of this very original American composer. I believe van Zweden’s conception of this work was a sound one, taking the audience through a series of sound pictures, or dreamscapes, like a stream of consciousness. He allowed the music to build towards the climatic cacophony of band music and street noise.

It is not difficult to understand why John Adams is today’s most popular – and perhaps most performed - contemporary operatic composer. His sensitivity to the text when writing music is apparent in The Wound-Dresser, for Baritone Voice and Orchestra (1988), performed by the great baritone Matthias Goerne. This is a musical setting of a fragment from the poem by Walt Whitman, a poem that describes the horrors and tragedy of the American Civil War, seen through the eyes of a battlefield nurse. Adams sensitivity in setting music to words is apparent in many instances throughout this short but intense score. For instance, with the words, “I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that could save you”, the strings took on palpable warmth and played an emotive, upward sweeping figure. In the line, “Hard the breathing rattles”, there were faster moving figures in the strings, and the music took on an almost disjointed quality.

Adams’ work highlighted the many outstanding instrumentalists of the orchestra. Concertmaster Frank Huang played a beautiful violin solo to the words, “The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing hand.” The score also called for heroic trumpet work throughout, and principal trumpet Christopher Martin raised magnificently to the challenge. 

Matthias Goerne sang with great sensitivity to the text – no surprise here since here is one of the great lieder singers of our time. In the climatic moments, most notably with the words, “Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive”, Goerne’s voice soared above the sound of the orchestra. Van Zweden conducted the score with great authority and feeling.

Van Zweden’s reading of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 was very much in a Toscanini rather than a Bruno Walter vein. From the ominous strokes of the timpani in the beginning to the triumphal ending of the 4thmovement, van Zweden and the orchestra gave a performance that was highly dramatic, taut, intense, almost driven, and with utmost awareness to the architecture of the large work. The tricky transition from the Un poco sostenutointroduction to the allegrowas expertly handled. The strings played the opening theme of the Andante sostenutomovement with great warmth. The pacing of the movement made me feel that the music was leading inevitably to the beautiful violin solo at letter E. The third movement somehow felt like, for the first time, a very brief intermezzo. Van Zweden drew magnificent playing from the players throughout, but especially in the final movement. 

Sitting in Row 3 of David Geffen Hall (I still secretly think of it as Avery Fisher Hall), I felt not only the incredible power of this orchestra, but I noticed the incredible level of involvement of every member of the ensemble. This is van Zweden’s second season with the Philharmonic, and I hope that he can keep the musicians on this level of inspiration during his tenure. 

Wednesday, March 27th

We ended our musical journey in New York in Carnegie Hall, with a recital with Emanuel Ax. Ax has reached the stage of his musical journey when he has nothing to prove. It was not a recital that sets out to “impress”, but just very beautiful and natural music making. 

I liked Ax’s pacing and the rich sound he evoked from the piano in Brahms’ Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79. I appreciated his pacing of these large works, and how he was able to weave through the composer’s thick textures.

The programme continued with Piano Figures, a set of very short pieces by George Benjamin with evocative titles such as SpellKnotsHammersMosaicAround the Corner, and Whirling, to name just a few. Ax rose to the considerable technical challenges set out by the composer in every one of the pieces, and managed to highlight the unique character of each number. 

Other than the aforementioned work by Benjamin, the programme of Brahms, Schumann, Ravel and Chopin made me think of Arthur Rubinstein, for this was the kind of programme Mr. Rubinstein loved to perform. Indeed, the next two works in the programme were ones that the great pianist played until the end of his career. 

Emanuel Ax ended the first half with Robert Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. The pianist played the suite of pieces with great imagination and beauty of sound. The opening DesAbendswas played in a songful manner, and the pianist projected the melodic line like a giant arch. Aufschwungwas, appropriately, impetuous and soaring, with beautiful voicing of the calmer middle section. In Warum, Ax played the short work simply, clearly delineating the musical texture. He played the opening chords of Grillenwith great energy and a real feeling of forward motion, as well as voicing each chord beautifully. There was a wonderful balance between the vertical and horizontal aspects of the music, as well as a real sense of logic in the transition through the different episodes. In der Nachtwas played with a real sense of Schumannesque “fever”, and with the middle section beginning like an apparition. The beginning of Fabelwas played in a disarmingly simple manner, alternating with the considerably faster moving episodes. Ax’s playing of Traumes Wirrenwas exhilarating and breathtaking, conjuring up a whirlwind of sound. In Ende von Lied, he played it with almost a feeling of mock seriousness. The B section was rhythmically impeccable, and the end of the work had just a tinge of regret.

The pianist revealed in an interview that he had studied Ravel’sValses nobles et sentimentaleswith Arthur Rubinstein, and that the older pianist had something insightful to say about every single chord. Ax’s own playing of this fin de sièclework of Ravel was truly masterful, and for me, the highlight of the evening. He managed to bring out the unique characteristic and sound world of each waltz. In the opening chords of the first waltz, Ax certainly observed the composer’s indication of très franc, with a suitably dry sound. The chords in the Assezlentwere wonderfully voiced. Ax played the third waltz (modéré) with a caressing tone and subtle pedaling. The technically challenging seventh waltz (Moins vif) was technically impregnable. In the Épilogue, he conjured from the instrument an otherworldly beauty of sound. 

The recital ended with a group of Chopin. Ax played the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1 with great beauty of sound as well as depth of feeling, and with a sense of organic unity. The coda was played almost as a single breath. The Three Mazurkas, Op. 50 as well as the Andante spinato and Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22 were also played with musicality. I did feel that, in the mazurkas and in the polonaise, it was a cosmopolitan kind of Chopin playing. I did miss the Polish flavour, the smell of Polish earth, and the indescribable feeling of żal, a combination of sadness, suffering, a feeling of passing, and of having lost everything. Beautiful as they were played, the uniquely Polish flavour, the essence of Chopin, was somehow missing. 

That aside, it was a highly satisfying evening of music making by one of today’s most loved pianists. I feel grateful for this week of memorable musical experiences, ones that I will be carrying with me for a long time to come.

Patrick May

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sir Andras Schiff and the Seattle Symphony

Sir Andras Schiff spent this last week in Seattle, conducting and playing with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, as well as giving a solo recital. I missed Sir Andras’ solo recital, but I had the pleasure of attending his appearance with the orchestra. 

The concert opened with J. S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 3 in D major, BWV 1054, a reworking of the composer’s Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042. It is apparent in this concerto how much the period instrument practice has seeped into performances with modern instruments. The strings played with minimal vibrato, and there was a lightness in the string playing that kept the musical line taut and buoyant. Schiff’s playing was, not surprising, a marvel to behold. In the faster passages, every note is beautiful and expressive, like a precious pearl within a perfect string of pearl. The lightness of his playing matched that of his colleagues in the orchestra. In the slow movement (Adagio e sempre piano), I was amazed at the beautiful legato and the sound he was able to achieve without any use of pedal (I sat on Row 1). The third movement (Allegro) was filled with a joyful spirit that this music calls for. Throughout the performance (and even in the performance of the Beethoven concerto), Schiff almost subsumed the sound of the piano within the texture of the orchestra, making it almost like a piano obbligato. This, for me, is concerto playing at its finest, a sort of glorified chamber music.

Equally memorable was Schiff and the orchestra’s presentation of Beethoven’s miraculous Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 – a Dionysian presentation of one of Beethoven’s most Dionysian works. The piano playing was expressive and expansive. It was not a Toscanini-like metronomic Steeplechase, but more of a Bruno Walter, stopping-along-the-way-to-smell-the-flowers approach to this great work. Schiff took time to let the music speak for itself. The opening phrase of the 1stmovement had a recitative-like, confiding quality to it. Throughout the movement, I was reminded of the beauty of Beethoven’s writing for the winds, especially the bassoon. At six measures after letter H, the piano playing had an extra depth of feeling, almost an ecstatic quality to it. Schiff is a conductor who reminds us that conducting really involves the power of suggestion. He coaxes rather than demands in his approach to directing the orchestra. As in the performance of the Bach, Schiff did not come off as the “famous soloist” playing against the orchestra, but integrated his playing within the orchestral texture. It was only during the cadenza that he rid himself of the orchestral shackles and allowed his considerable virtuosity to shine through.

In the slow movement, Schiff set a tempo a little faster than most performers, with sharper articulation in the strings. This is actually in line with the composer’s Andante con motomarking, con motobeing the operative word here. That said, there was no lacking in tension or tautness in the music; there was, however, very much a sense of forward motion – it was a perfect balance between the horizontal and vertical aspects of this music. I appreciated the space Schiff allowed between each orchestral outburst and the piano entry. The long passage of trill at the end of the movement was filled with urgency and a pleading quality, an appropriate contrast with the silence that followed.

I had always thought that this particular Beethoven concerto could not do without a full-time conductor. Well, Schiff and the orchestra obviously rehearsed this work very well, because the ensemble between pianist and orchestra, as well as all those tricky entrances, was done to perfection. This was especially apparent in the 3rdmovement. I liked the way Schiff played all the sforzandonotes in the right hand (the passage at Letter A, for instance), giving it a feeling of surprise, but never forced or hammered. 

At the end of the Beethoven, soloist and orchestra received a deservedly rousing ovation from the audience, whereupon he returned with Menuet I and IIas well as the Giguefrom Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825. Schiff’s brief performance was musical in every note, as light and breathtaking as one could hope for, and he really highlights the quirkiness of Bach’s melodic writing. 

Schiff returned as a full time conductor in the second half, and led the orchestra in a deeply felt reading of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123, yet another miraculous masterpiece, this time from the 20thcentury. It never fails to amaze me that this beautiful, optimistic and life-affirming work should come during such a dark time not just in human history, but in the composer’s life as well.

He beautifully shaped the melodic idea in the celli and basses at the outset of the work, and really allowed the music to build towards the Allegrovivace(rehearsal number 76) main section. I liked how he shaped the angular melody in the violins, really giving it a great deal of character. There was a real sense of grandeur and excitement in the canonic passage for brasses at rehearsal number 313. Throughout this long first movement, there was an organic unity that led to that final F for the entire orchestra.

In the Giuoco delle coppiemovement, Schiff infused the opening music with real humour, and inspired the bassoonists in some inspired playing. There was heroic and very beautiful trumpet playing in the extended passages for the instrument by the Seattle musicians. The conductor painted a real picture of varying shades of grey (certainly more than fifty) in the Elegia movement. The“outburst” by the strings at rehearsal 34 had a desperate quality to it, almost like a cry for help. Leonard Bernstein once said that a lot of Bartok’s melodic writing is related to the unique sounds of the Hungarian language. This passage, and the way the musicians played it, reminded me of Mr. Bernstein’s statement.

Schiff highlighted the almost Mahler-like sense of irony in some of the music in the Intermezzo interrotto movement. The violas played their beautiful theme at rehearsal 43 with great warmth as well as a depth of feeling. Conductor and orchestra pulled out all the stops in the very exciting final movement. The opening horn solo had a real sense of occasion to it, and conveyed the feeling of the beginning of something momentous. The rapid passage by the first and second violins had a real Hungarian, almost gypsy, flavour, to it. Yesterday afternoon, every musician in the orchestra rose to the occasion responded to Bartok’s technical and musical challenges with aplomb and absolute assurance.

From first note to last, yesterday’s performance by Schiff and the Seattle musicians made for a rich and rewarding musical experience. It was a performance of total commitment on the part of the musicians, as well as one where all the elements came together to make for a very memorable afternoon.

Patrick May