Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Dispatch from Warsaw, October 20, 2021

A very mixed evening of very different approaches to the Chopin concerti.

Aimi Kobayashi played the first concerto with great dignity and majesty. Unfortunately, her tempo was a bit too stately, thereby robbing the music of its impetus at times. Overall, it was a performance of great polish, if a little lacking in emotion.

Polish pianist Jakub Kuszlik played the same concerto with poetry and a beautiful sound. Occasionally, his phrasing lapsed into dullness after episodes of great beauty. 

Hyuk Lee played the concerto in F minor with great beauty of sound. He is a poetic musician; I only wish that he would allow the music to breathe a bit more, so that the phrasing would not be quite as measured. 

A great ovation greeted Canadian Bruce Liu after he gave a pianistically brilliant performance of the concerto in E minor. 

As we wait for the decision of the jury, I have to confess that this has been one of the most musically intense and emotional week of my concert-going life. For me, the musician that moved me the most with the poetry and ardour of his playing, the maturity of his conception, and his collaborative approach in his concerto performance, has to be Kyohei Sorita. 

If I were backed against a wall, I would give the 1st prize to Sorita, 2nd to Leonora Armellini and 3rd to Bruce Liu. No doubt the distinguished jury would turn out to have a completely different view.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Dispatch from Warsaw, October 19, 2021

Canadian J. J. Jun Li But played a songful and ardent first concerto tonight. Unfortunately, he was playing all by himself, leaving the orchestra to follow, which they did magnificently, no easy task at all. In the third movement, he was rushing so much that the whole thing became an athletic contest, which was unfortunate, as he has some very good ideas for this movement. At this point, he is still very much a child relishing in his own pianistic abilities.

Alexander Gadjiev chose to play the F minor concerto, but his performance suffered from square phrasing and a lack of breathing room for the music. Right at the piano entrance of the first movement, he missed the rhetorical nature of the music. The return of the second theme in the recapitulation was done quite beautifully. The second movement fared much better, the sound was very good, and there was considerably more poetry. It was too bad that at the beautiful bassoon solo, he was somewhat detached from the melodic line. The third movement was lively, but the dance element of the music was missing.

The highlight of the evening was Martin Garcia Garcia's performance of the F minor concerto. There was lyricism, flexibility in phrasing, and considerable poetry. He listened to the orchestra, and there was a variety of sounds in his tone production tonight, although the loud passages sounded sometimes strident. In the slow movement, he succeeded in drawing us into Chopin's emotional world. The many runs in the right hand were ravishing, and the duet with the bassoonist was enchanting indeed. Garcia Garcia succeeded in highlighting the dance element of the third movement, the passagework was really breathtaking, and the sound of the solo piano was very much alive and rhythmically alert with the col legno string accompaniment. It was a brilliant and original performance of this somewhat underplayed (at least for the Chopin Competition) concerto.

The very talented Eva Gevorgyan played a pianistically perfect first concerto tonight. It was, however, a performance akin to someone highlighting a very beautiful work of art, rather than an intensely emotional experience. 

We have four more artists performing tomorrow evening, and then the jury members will be left with the very difficult decision of deciding who the best man, or woman, would be.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Dispatch from Warsaw, October 18, 2021

Four performances of Chopin's 1st piano concerto tonight, all very different.

Kamil Pacholec gave a straight forward performance of the concerto, with some moments of beauty. I find that he revels in the more overtly virtuoso passages of the concerto, rather than the lyrical ones.

I'm afraid Hao Rao's extroverted brand of showmanship (musically, not physically) was not my cup of tea. Brilliant as it sometimes was, it was, for me, short of poetry and subtlety. He seems to have two sounds- very loud and not very loud. Once in a while he used the una corda to get a softer sound, but it didn't work very well. There were some inexplicable things musically. At m. 573 of the 1st movement, when Chopin marked a tempo, Hao took a considerably slower tempo, I suppose to highlight the composer's dolce con expressione marking, but it hampered the musical flow considerably. At m. 103 of the Romance, I felt that he overdid the rallentando, once again halting the impetus of the music. Let me apologize here to his many fans, of which there seemed to have been many in the audience tonight.

The poet of the piano tonight was Kyohei Sorita, playing with an infinite variety of sounds within each phrase. In much of the passagework, he was playing chamber music with the orchestra, blending his sound within the orchestral texture. His turn of phrase at m. 601 of the 1st movement was absolutely moving. It was an absolutely ravishing, poetic, emotionally overwhelming performance of this great work. Whether or not he wins of the top prizes, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a great artist, a generous soul, and one of the most sensitive musicians in this competition.

Leonora Armellini's performance of the concerto also had much to offer. Her playing was not short on poetry, but I did find some of her phrasing a bit angular and brittle. For me, the highlight of her performance was the third movement, which was brilliantly done. 

A great deal of credit has to be given to the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrey Boreyko, who were sensitive and supportive collaborators in all four performances. Tonight's performance highlighted for me once again the absolute beauty and sensitivity of Chopin's orchestration. The writing for woodwinds is especially beautiful. 

This concerto marathon continues tomorrow and Wednesday, after which we would find out the long awaited results of what has proven to be a very interesting few weeks.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Dispatch from Warsaw, October 17, 2021

To commemorate the 172nd anniversary of the death of Chopin, there was a special performance of Mozart's Requiem, K. 626, tonight at the Basilica of Holy Cross in Warsaw, where Chopin's heart is reposed. The outstanding quartet of soprano Simona Saturova, alto Sara Mingardo, tenor Maximilian Schmitt and bass Jan Martinik, the Collegium Vocals 1704 and Collegium 1704, under the direction of Vaclav Luks, gave an emotionally charged performance of this towering work.

It seems pointless to discuss the merits - of which there are many - or problems in tonight's performance, suffice it to say sitting in that great basilica, hearing this heaven storming music, Mozart's prayer for the dead, was at times almost too much to bear.

As we slowly emerge from this global pandemic, I could not help but think that this was a Mass for all those who perished as a victim of this man-made global disaster. Every member of the audience was there as a part of the human family, hearing music that asks for eternal rest for those who died.

Beginning tomorrow, the 18th International Chopin Competition enters the final phase. Nine pianists will perform the composer's 1st piano concerto, and 3 brave souls will give their heart and soul in the 2nd piano concerto.

Who will be the new crown prince or princess of the music world? We will soon find out.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Dispatch from Warsaw - October 16, 2021

Every pianist in this morning session had something unique to offer. Competition veterans Nikolay Khozyaninov and Su Yeon Kim both delivered memorable performances.

For me, the revelation today was Aimi Kobayashi, who played the Op. 30 Mazurkas pitch perfectly, with impeccable rhythm in the C minor mazurka (No. 1), capturing the quirkiness of the rhythm and having a real sense of movement in the B minor mazurka (No. 2), bringing a multitude of colours and a strong rhythmic sense to the mazurka in D-flat major (No. 3), and beautifully handling the tricky triplet rhythmic figures in the mazurka in C-sharp minor (No. 4), bringing to this elusive work a beguiling wistfulness.

Instead of one of the sonatas, Kobayashi elected to play the complete set of Preludes (Op. 28), giving us a ravishing performance from beginning to end. In the C major prelude (No. 1), she does not overplay the agitato aspect of the music, but making it just quietly surging. She brought to the A minor prelude (No. 2) a very subtle sense of menace. Her playing of the G major prelude (No. 3) was exhilarating, joyous and breathtaking. The build up to the shattering climax in the E minor prelude (No. 4) was deftly handled. The prelude in D major (No. 5) was played as a single breath, and she infused the prelude in B minor (No. 6) with a effective sense of movement. The famous A major prelude (No. 7) was, simply, irresistibly charming. In the F-sharp minor prelude (No. 8) she does not overplay the storminess of the music, but brought to it a quiet sense of unrest. The E major prelude (No. 9) was played with great dignity and a rock solid tempo. She played the C-sharp minor prelude (No. 10) with breathtaking lightness and she brought out the euphonious beauty of the prelude in B major (No. 11). This was effectively contrasted with the wildness she brought to the prelude in G-sharp minor (No. 12). 

In the F-sharp major prelude (No. 13), the music floats above the beautifully played accompaniment figures in the left hand. There was real substance in the sound of the prelude in E-flat minor (No. 14), but the music never sounded heavy. In the justly famous D-flat major prelude (No. 15), she displayed a truly gorgeous singing tone, and beautifully transitioned into the relentless, almost compulsive funeral march. Kobayashi gave us a terrifically wild roller-coaster ride in the prelude in the B-flat minor prelude. In the prelude in A-flat major (No. 17) she beautifully shaped the arch-like melody in the beginning, and she highlighted the rhetorical nature of the prelude in F minor (No. 18). In the E-flat major prelude (No. 19) the music really took off as a bird in flight, and she infused the work with a beautiful lightness. She played the prelude in C minor (No. 20) with utter seriousness and solemnity, with some absolutely gorgeous voicing. She brought a truly beautiful cantabile to the prelude in B-flat major (No. 21), and contrasted it with the storminess of the G minor prelude (No. 22). The prelude in F major (No. 23) - always conjuring for me a picture of a sailboat on a calm sea - was light, breezy, and her pianissimos were beautiful. She certainly conjured up a veritable storm with her big bold sound in the D minor prelude (No. 24), but the sound was always round and rich, never percussive.

It is truly amazing that after repeated hearings of these so-familiar works, a great artist can still come along and move one to tears. For as long as our world exists, there will be great artists who can move us beyond the realm of everyday existence. On top of her pianistic attributes, Aimi Kobayashi's playing touches us in the deepest recess of our hearts. 

As a postscript, Canadian pianist Bruce Liu apparently received a standing ovation from the audience tonight. As we now await the results of the pianists who move into the final concerto round, let me just say once again what a privilege it has been to be witness to this episode of music history. I am certain that the concerto performances will again bring many emotional highs.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Dispatch from Warsaw - October 15, 2021

Even with missed flight, security check, jet lag and continuous mask-wearing, I was wide awake as I sat in Warsaw's Philharmonic Hall to await the beginning of this evening's session of the 3rd round of the 18th International Chopin Competition.

Italy/Slovenia's Alexander Gadjiev started the evening off with the Polonaise-Fantasie (Op. 61), in a performance that is filled with many beautiful episodes, but somehow lacking a coherence, an organic whole. The young artist has a gorgeous sound, perhaps in time he will penetrate more greatly the inner sorrow and heartbreak so inherent in this great work.

The Mazurkas (Op. 56) were elegant rather than soulful. In the C major (No. 2) Mazurka, I wished that there could have been more feeling of earthiness in the music.

The Sonata in B-flat minor (Op. 35) seemed to have been the favourite this evening. Gadjiev played up the urgency of the opening theme, but I wish that the repeat of the exposition could have more varied ideas. The scherzo was pianistically impressive with some interesting ideas in voicing. For me, this was his most moving playing this evening. I missed the dark sound that is so important in the opening of the famous funeral march, but he did play the middle section with a beautiful liquid sound. The finale was pianistically impeccable, but for me it could have even more of the feeling of the "cold wind blowing across the cemetery". 

American pianist Avery Gagliano created a completely different impression with her thoroughly moving Chopin playing. She has a smaller sound than Gadjiev, but that did not matter in the least. In the opening of the Sonata in B-flat minor (Op. 35), she conveyed much more of a sense of urgency, even crisis, a feeling of palpitation. She had some beautiful ideas in the left hand accompaniment figures in this first movement, and she gave the lyrical second theme a quiet dignity. I appreciated the ruggedness she brought to the opening of the scherzo. Her B section did not have quite as beautiful a sound as Gadjiev, but it was somehow more moving. She took me much more into the inner world of this music. In the funeral march, she again penetrated into the composer's creative soul. The middle section of the funeral march was played rhythmically strict, but she conveyed a quiet, hushed beauty that demanded our attention. It was intensely moving. In the finale, she did achieve the feeling of the chill wind sweeping the cemetery, and her little surges of sound added to the cries of anguish. 

To my ears, Gagliano's playing of the same Op. 56 set of Mazurkas were rhythmically, musically and stylistically superior to Gadjiev's. In the first mazurka she captured the quirky rhythmic quality of the opening as well as the intricate counterpoint. I did smell the smell of the Polish earth with her playing of the second mazurka, and she played the third mazurka with a quiet sense of melancholy, as well as with magical transitions from one musical idea to the next.

It is incredible that Gagliano managed to bring something new and fresh to the much played Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31. Most importantly, she brought to this work many shades of sound and drew from an infinite palate of tone colours. 

Martin Garcia Garcia (Spain) is a young man with strong musical instincts and interesting ideas. He opened his recital with the Prelude in A-flat major (Op. 28, No. 17) with strangely stiff phrasing, failing to convey the arch-like quality of the melody. I appreciated the lightness he brought to the Prelude in E-flat major (Op. 28, No. 19). In the Prelude in F major (Op. 28, No. 23), I would have worried less about the details, about trying to bring out every musical nuance, but trying to convey more the flow of the music. 

In the only performance of the Sonata in B minor (Op. 58), he played the opening of the 1st movement in an arresting manner. The second theme, which was beautifully played, sounded to me far too loud on the Fazioli, his instrument of choice. For me, the transition of musical ideas could be infused with greater meaning. He played the scherzo absolutely beautifully, with a breathtaking lightness and a whirlwind-like quality. The Largo was again beautifully played; personally I yearn for greater penetration into the emotional core of the music, but he did handled the transition of musical ideas very nicely indeed. Somehow the brief pause between the 3rd and 4th movement broke the spell of the gorgeous slow movement, but he did immediately capture the molto perpetuo, relentless quality of the movement. It was impressive, even glittering playing indeed, in much of the passagework. 

In the first two of the Op. 50 mazurkas, there was almost a waltz-like quality which isn't (to me) quite right for playing of mazurkas, and the C-sharp minor mazurka (No. 3) lacked the wistful feeling in the beginning. In the Prelude in C-sharp minor (Op. 45), he missed the Faure-like harmonic transition that gives this piece such a special beauty. However, his playing of the Waltz in F major (Op. 34, No. 3) with absolute charm and panache, relishing every turn of phrase with the same eagerness of a kid waiting his turn at cops and robbers.

Russia's Eva Gevorgyan is very obviously a big talent. She opened her recital with the Fantasy in F minor (Op. 49) with an interpretation of utter seriousness, which is of course one possible and very valid interpretation, but for me there could have been more of a sense of storytelling to this piece, a feeling of a tragedy unfolding.

Kudos to her for having the courage in playing the earlier set of Mazurkas (Op. 17), opening with a stylistically sound interpretation of the first mazurka. In the second and third mazurkas, I had a bit of trouble with the accents she applied to the music, but she did play the A minor (No. 4) mazurka with the perfect sense of wistfulness, of quiet sadness, looking very much inwardly into the music.

Her aggressive, take-no-prisoner approach to the opening of the Sonata in B-flat minor (Op. 35) was actually very effective, and it contrasted quiet nicely with the beautifully played lyrical second theme, although I found that the first statement of this theme could be played in a more straight forward manner. It was, on the whole, a performance that demanded our attention. I did again wish for more different dimensions in her sound. The scherzo was played with quite a bit of tempi changes, which for me hampered some of the natural flow of the music. Gevorgyan's playing of the funeral march, especially in the middle section, was in many way more beautiful than Gagliano's. Emotionally, I did still find Gagliano's interpretation more moving. Even her brilliant playing of the finale was more glittering than frightening. That said, Gevorgyan's pianism was truly impressive, and in time, the sky could be the limit for this very gifted young artist.

As I sat in that hall, I was suddenly overcome with feeling, thinking of the great pianists who had played in that hallowed hall. What a privilege it is to be present and be witness to music history in the making.

Until tomorrow.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Zubin Mehta's Recorded Legacy in the City of the Angels

Founded as early as 1919, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has had a series of very distinguished music directors – Georg Lennart Schnéevoigt, Artur Rodzinski, Otto Klemperer, Alfred Wallenstein and Eduard van Beinum. Bruno Walter, a distinguished Los Angeles resident, had also conducted the orchestra regularly. 


Nevertheless, the orchestra never really established a profile as one of America’s major orchestras. At the time, the talk was always about the “Big 5” orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago. 


Then Zubin Mehta arrived in Los Angeles.


Originally invited as a last-minute substitute for guest conductors Fritz Reiner and Igor Markevitch, Mehta established an immediate rapport with the orchestra and a connection with the audience. The circumstances surrounding his appointment as music director is well known and does not need another retelling. Suffice it to say that in 1962, Mehta was appointed music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a marriage that would last until 1978. 


On top of Mehta’s many innovations in the city, the most long-lasting legacy of Mehta’s tenure in Los Angeles has to be the many outstanding recordings he made with the orchestra with Decca records. Now Decca has reissued all these fine recordings in a generous 38-CD box – Zubin Mehta/Los Angeles Philharmonic – Complete Decca Recordings.


Having heard all the recordings in this sumptuous box, the first thing one could say is the absolutely beautiful recorded sound, capturing every nuance of the orchestra’s playing. The Decca team of engineers decided early on that the Dorothy Chandler pavilion, while being a fine hall for live performances, was completely unfit as a recording venue. After much scouting, they decided that seemingly unremarkable Royce Hall, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, would suit their purpose more than adequately. I cannot say this more emphatically – the orchestra sounds spectacular in these recordings. 


The first recordings of Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic appeared in 1967. It was the first time an American orchestra would be recording for a European recording company. This presented some problems for the orchestra management at the time, as the recording company would only pay the orchestral players according to European and not American (unionized) scale. The management had to look for financing for these recordings in order to make up the difference. 


Mehta made the wise decision not to push the orchestra to record until he felt it was ready, and that explains the lag time between his taken over the music directorship in 1962 and the first batch of recordings in 1967. By 1967, the Los Angeles Philharmonic had already become a very fine orchestra, as can be attested in these first recordings. By the time Mehta left, judging from recordings of the late 1970’s, the orchestra had become the world class orchestra it is today. 


Listening to these recordings, I was struck by the imaginative and musical conducting of both very familiar repertoire as well as more unknown works of the orchestral literature. There is also a palpable love and passion in the music making in every recording. What is more, I felt that every member of the orchestra was really putting his or her heart and soul into these performances. None of these recordings came off as “routine” studio sessions. 


There are some recordings that were and are welcomed additions to the catalogue. There are deeply committed performances of Liszt Symphonic Poems – Hunnenschlacht (S105), Orpheus (S98) and Mazeppa(S100), a convincing recording of Stravinsky’s 8 Instrumental Miniatures for 15 players, an absolutely gorgeous reading of Charles Ives Symphony No. 1, with some outstanding playing from the orchestra principals, a wonderful recording of the same composer’s relatively more popular Symphony No. 2 that stands up to the fine recordings by Bernstein and Tilson Thomas, exciting performances of William Kraft’s Concerto for Four Percussion Soloists and Orchestra and Contextures: Riots – Decade ’60, masterful and convincing readings of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 and the thorny Orchestral Variations, Op. 31, thrilling performances of Edgard Varèse’s ArcanaIntegrales and Ionisation, a performance of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 (“The Inextinguishable”) that brings out the rugged beauty of the music, and a beautiful reading of John Williams Suites from the films, Star Wars and Close Encounter of the Third Kind that I find superior to the composer’s own recording. None of these works are, even today, hugely represented in the recording catalogue. 


Some of Mehta’s Los Angeles recordings have become acknowledged classics of the phonograph. I had not been a great fan of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, but Mehta’s recording of the work made a convert out of me. He minimizes the bombast of the music, and infused the work with not only a sense of grandeur, but a quiet dignity, bringing out the inner beauty of the music that performances sometimes lack. 


Listening to the orchestra’s 1967 recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, I was struck by how Mehta highlights the contrast between the dramatic sections like Gnomus with the more lighthearted ones like the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks. In a movement like Gnomus or Bydlo, there is a weightiness of sound that bring out all the drama of the music. Mehta’s pacing and sense of timing in The Great Gate of Kiev is also impeccable; he holds the orchestra back from the explosion of sound until the very end of the work. 


Mehta’s recording of Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite, an iconic recording not only for music lovers but audiophiles as well, was certainly exciting and beautifully played. But what caught my ears was the lack of bombast (excitement, certainly) and a great beauty of sound throughout the performance. Again, in the final Neptune movement, Mehta draws us into the mystical and magical sound world created Holst created. The same observations apply to his recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Op. 35, and kudos to the London engineers for capturing the sound of the orchestra so vividly and beautifully. 


There are only two concerto recordings – a magisterial performance of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with Alicia de Larrocha from 1979, apparently Mehta’s final recording with the orchestra, and an absolutely delightful disc titled Concertos in Contrast, featuring four principal players from the orchestra. Other than Haydn’s very familiar Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major, Hob. VIIe/1, the other works certain warrant outstanding performances such as these – Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in A minor, RV445, Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra in E-flat, Op. 26, Wieniawski’s Polonaise No. 1 in D major, Op. 4 and his Scherzo-Tarantelle, Op. 16. Throughout his tenure in Los Angeles, Mehta had been responsible for hiring most of the musicians as the older players retired, probably the most long-lasting aspect of his legacy. These 1974 performances by the players from the orchestra certainly gives us a hint of the extremely high level of playing by the orchestra. 


A 1973 disc – Virtuoso Overtures – gives us, among other things, an absolutely gorgeous and darkly brooding performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz Overture, with perfect intonation and ensemble by the horns at the beginning, as well as an echt Viennese reading of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture. Even the recording, Hits at the Hollywood Bowl, no doubt a project they did for the recording company, receives committed and beautiful performances. 


In one instance, we hear two recordings, from different time periods, of the same work – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor (Op. 36). The earlier recording was one of the orchestra’s first discs for Decca, done in 1967. The second was part of a complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies – a great addition to the catalogue of Tchaikovsky recordings, unfortunately neglected by critics - taped in 1977. As much as the 1967 performance was a fine one, we hear in the 1977 recording what an absolutely great ensemble the Los Angeles Philharmonic had become.


The magnificent recordings of Bruckner’s 4th and 8th symphonies, Mahler’s 3rd and 5th symphonies, Strauss’ Sinfonia domestica (Op. 53), Eine Alpensinfonie (Op. 64), and the tone poems, show Mehta’s affinity for painting large canvases, an absolute grasp of the overriding structure of the works from first note to last. In a record of Mahler Lieder with the incredible Marilyn Horne, I was almost more captivated and fascinated by Mehta’s design of the orchestral writing than even Horne’s unbelievably rich voice. In these recordings especially, we can hear the successful results of Mehta’s efforts to elicit a central European sound from the orchestra. Even in the biggest climaxes and the most dramatic passages, there was never any coarseness in the sound.


Since Mehta’s departure from Southern California, the orchestra has had some highly distinguished music directors, from the dignified Giulini to one of today’s hottest conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, every one of them putting his individual stamp on the orchestra’s sound. The ensemble had moved from its fine home at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to today’s architecturally stunning Walt Disney Concert Hall, where I had the good fortune to attend a concert by Mehta with the orchestra last year. Hearing the orchestra today, I feel that Mehta must be given major credit for creating the world class orchestra we have today. 


Zubin Mehta/Los Angeles Philharmonic – Complete Decca Recordings is a testament of the work of one of today’s most honest and dedicated musicians, working with musicians that were sympathetic to his music making, and well served by knowledgeable and musical recording engineers. It has been a richly rewarding musical experience listening to these fine performances once again.