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

Friday, March 1, 2019

Remembering André Previn

In those pre-historic days of the late 1970’s, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and when serious music was very much part of television programming, I came upon this wonderful series of programmes called “Previn and the Pittsburgh”. I watched those shows and marveled not only at the beauty of the music being presented, but also at the incredible talents of André Previn.

When I learned of the death of Mr. Previn, I realized that even though I had never seen him perform in person, his music making loomed large over my formative years as a music lover and student of music.

Other than Leonard Bernstein, I cannot think of a musician who was so multi-talented, and whose career touched upon so many facets of music – composer, conductor, pianist (classical and jazz), educator, and presenter of music. 

Previn started in Hollywood as an arranger and composer when he was sixteen, out of economic necessity more than anything else, and ended up composing and arranging music for some fine (and some not so fine) films – Invitation to the Dance,GigiPorgy and BessIrma La Douce,My Fair Lady, and Thoroughly Modern Mille, to name just a few – winning four Oscars for his work. 

At the same time, he discovered jazz, and became a fine pianist in that genre. One of my favourite Previn albums includes the “My Fair Lady” record, made within a single evening, and became a very big seller (for a jazz record). He “jammed” with such luminaries as Ray Brown, Red Mitchell, Bill Perkins, Jerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne.

He played chamber music with musicians from the MGM studio orchestra, and studied conducting with Pierre Monteux. He conducted the studio orchestra in his own film compositions, but also had the occasional opportunity to conduct “serious” repertoire. In one of his first rehearsals with the studio orchestra, the musicians decided to test him by tuning a semitone lower. Previn heard it and said nothing. Right before he gave the downbeat, he said, “Everyone, transpose a semitone up.” The musicians were impressed.

When he tired of the lack of challenge in film work, and began to shift his focus to conducting full time, all the critics held his years in Hollywood against him. Previn said that all the reviews would begin with the words, “Last night, Hollywood’s André Previn conducted….” He often said that critics would have forgiven him if he had been a serial killer, but not for having been a “film composer”. 

Gradually, Previn won them over as he gained experience as a conductor. He took over the Houston Symphony Orchestra briefly, and then there were those honeymoon years as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, where he made some of his finest and most memorable recordings. Then there were tenures in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, both of which ended unhappily. In his last years, he devoted his time mostly to the occasional guest conducting stints, and to composing. I was very much looking forward to his scheduled appearance with the Seattle Symphony, but he had to cancel that concert because of ill health. 

I believe his television programmes on music can be judged the same way as Bernstein’s work on television. He talked about music intelligently, without talking down to the audience. I am certain that many people owed their interest in music because of Previn’s programmes. His one appearance on the British television show of Morecambe and Wise (“Mr. Preview!”) is still remembered and talked about today.

Previn often talked about composing as something he could do easily, because of his training in Hollywood. He often said that he could compose “with the World Series on”, but that he didn't expect his music to last. I believe he underestimated his work as a composer. His film scores rank along those of Korngold, Rózsa, Walton, and Hermann. And I particularly love his guitar concerto, written for John Williams, and his piano concerto, written for Vladimir Ashkenazy. In his later years, his operatic adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” contains some truly memorable music. 

I will always be grateful to Previn for his many wonderful recordings, introducing me to works that remain close to me today. I love Rachmaninoff’s second symphony because of his great recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, the first time the work was recorded uncut. His recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variationsis still one of the finest in the catalogue. I still adore his Vaughan Williams records, especially the one of the fifth symphony, where the feeling of “Englishness” overflows in the slow movement. His Mahler fourth introduced me to that charming work; I wore out the LP listening to his recording of the incidental music to Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” There were also albums where Previn doubled as pianist and conductor – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Concert in F, many Mozart concerti, and lots of chamber music. 

In his witty and clever memoirs, No Minor Chords – My Days in Hollywood, Previn said, “Since leaving Hollywood, I have had the healthy and sobering experience of constantly working with music that is invariably better than any performance of it can be.” Using that as a yardstick, I think Previn had had a pretty rewarding life.

So rest in peace, André Previn. Thank you for all you had done for music, and, as Bob Hope said, “Thanks for the memories.”

Patrick May