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.