Sunday, February 21, 2010

Rachmaninoff, Chaikovskii, Auerbach at Kennedy Center

Denis Matsuev has some serious ideas about Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. He sees it not as the Second Symphony with piano accompaniment, but rather as a Prelude of massive size with orchestral connective tissue. He sees it as a work of sometimes unbearable momentum, and at other times of heart rending stillness. And he has the technique to back up these ideas--a hugely satisfying use-your-paw-to-press-the-note-down-as-far-as-it-goes sound that cuts through the orchestra like there's a whole "piano" section, exceeded only by a beguiling sensitivity that unabashedly steals your heart.

In short, after taking a lot of heat for schmaltzing up the Concertgebouw's program on Monday, I think its safe to say that Rachmaninoff has redeemed himself in DC's eyes.

The NSO, under the direction of James Gaffigan (any relation to this guy?) played with delicacy and distinction in many moments. But at other times, they seemed to turn Matsuev's crisp, driving sets into gluey, halting picks (volleyball metaphor FTW!). Not that its easy to maintain momentum over those expansive themes, but one wonders at what could be achieved with an orchestra matching the brilliant agility Matsuev was serving up.

Matsuev responded to ecstatic applause with this showpiece, providing me with cheesy encore #2 for the week. I mean, it's his right and all, but after being so blown away by his Rachmaninoff I was really jonesing for some more information about what he could do with, you know, teh serious music.

The opener was a fascinating piece called "Requiem for Icarus" by Lera Auerbach. There were passages that came off a bit clumsily in the NSO's hands, but the overall impression was searing and direct, particularly the chilling final section.

After the half was Chaikovskii (love that bad-ass spelling) #4. Quibbles in the first half be damned, this was an exquisitely executed performance from the NSO. The allegro was played with glorious, tense precision, giving way to a second movement of disarming simplicity of expression. I don't know what to say about that plucked business in the scherzo, but the finale was an all cylinder tour de force. Gaffigan has a keen sense of phrasing that feels at once driving and deeply intuitive.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Well, much to my chagrin, I didn't get to see the Concertgebouw on my trip to Amsterdam a few months ago, but was able to save some face tonight seeing them at the KC Concert Hall, courtesy of WPAS.

The first half was the Sibelius violin concerto with violinist Janine Jansen, and I liked it fine. That said, it was a bit domesticated. I'm listening to the Heifetz/CSO record I have of it now, and there's something sort of desperate and sad that was missing in Maestro Jansson's very beautiful and thoughtful reading. For her part, Jansen brought an exciting hard-edged tone and brilliant skill to the solo. But mostly I think I just wanted more Concertgebouw than the concerto could serve up.

The Rachmaninov Second Symphony after the break did not disappoint. So, maybe Rach Symphony II is not the most cerebral piece. Maybe, like 'Party in the USA', one could accuse it of basically being "all chorus." But as a tour calling card that makes me want to abandon my job and apartment and just go live in the sound the string section makes? Yeah, its pretty freaking good for that purpose. I mean, I'm not a huge Second Symphony connoisseur, but I just can't imagine how one plays the piece better than this. The lyric money lines, which, as mentioned, come like ever 20 bars, were time and again just pure plush brainfreeze gorgeousness.

But not cheap, you know? The Concertgebouw is able to achieve that thing it seems great orchestra string sections are able to with remarkable consistency: that sense that the lines are really 'speaking' as when played by great soloists. Mind you, I've never played in an orchestra, so the whole thing is kind of voodoo magic to me, but I know when an orchestra gets beyond the earthbound "here is the melody we are playing it nice" level and it is a magical, exhilarating sensation. Is it an absolute fidelity to phrasing across players thing? In any event, the Rachmaninov really spoke this evening, in all of its big wet earnest glory.

The encore was cheesy (if impressive). Enough of cheesy orchestra encores. Why can't they roll like pianists and come up with something in the familiar but classy/unexpected favorites vein?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

And now, the Naxos bobsled team...

J: yes....?
A: have you ever heard of how in seoul in 2004 when they lit the torch they lit all these doves on fire??
J: no!
A: uh
A: start this video at like 4:30
A: er
A: 4:20
J: ok waiting for it to load
J: whoa
J: I mean, they had to know that was going to happen
A: koreans are hardcore
A: "yes, pigeons will die...what of it!!!!"
J: do you feel like watching an intense Waltraud Liebestod in extreme close-up?
A: sure i do
A: lots of people dead in that tristan
A: ah
A: its the guy who did that salome i saw in amsterdam
J: oh...
J: well the rest is just Waltraud in extreme close up
A: ha
A: oh man
A: she kicks so much ass
A: that is the best
J: she really gets into it
A: i want to see her in a production of "Sunset Boulevard"
J: totally!
J: that lead up to and the actual moment of that last huge loud note....amazing
A: and then that funny kind of grimace on the very last note
J: yeah....oh, that note.
A: kind of a dick move on wagner's part
J: Stemme gets it in the one I found online
A: rarg
A: i think i bought tix for somethign else the night of the 20th
A: i may need to bail on it to see her tho
A: are you excited for olympics
J: oh man
J: yes
J: though my figure skating crush did not make the team
A: who is that?
A: oh cute
A: dommage
J: dude listen to how perfect this is
J: just from this past fall
A: i want to get into ski + shoot this time
J: oh good one
A: wow
A: that is great
A: she is the real deal yo
J: I mean
J: 2011 we're flying to SF for a full cycle
J: you know she's doing all the Brunnhildes
A: got to be
A: i will totally sit through more Crackerjack Ring for that goodness
J: oh totally
J: I will say though....I wouldn't stress yourself about coming up for the Ariadne
J: she's SO wonderful
J: but
J: the Bacchus BLOWS
J: I went back last night
A: ew
J: and so it ends with a real thud
A: that sux
J: and I think Kathleen Kim is not all that
J: she's fine
J: but def not wonderful
A: that dark flavor in stemme's voice is so killer
A: like, yes, I'll take a little coffee with my cream, thanks
J: I want to hear her whole Isolde so bad

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Clothes War-Horses

Rupert Christiansen comments on a column Opera Chic has written about conductors' wardrobes:
Offstage, it doesn’t matter what a performer wears; onstage, however, it regrettably does. We are meant to go to a concert to listen rather than look, and ideally how musicians are clothed should have no bearing on the sound they make. But the brute fact is that understated elegance inspires confidence in the performer, while ugly, ill-fitting and garish outfits (still the norm in our concert halls) make one sub-consciously doubt the wearer’s competence. And it matters too in terms of popular preconception and prejudice: a shiny, baggy suit or a Primark evening dress promotes the notion among the trend-conscious young that ‘classical music’ is terribly cheesy and uncool.
Really? I mean, it's all well and good to gossip about classical performers' wardrobes--the clothing of rich and classy people is interesting as always. But people not attending classical music because of the sometimes-dumpy dresses? First, anyone who is lukewarm on the whole concept of classical music is probably not paying for seats anywhere near close enough to get a good look at the outfits. Renaay just looks like a big sequin from the cheap seats at Carnegie Hall no matter what she has on. Second, if the performer and the music isn't doing anything for you in the first place, its hard to imagine you'd want to come back for the great outfits. I'm afraid this is another one of those variables that people can have fun thinking and talking about but has no effect whatsoever on the attendance side of the equation.

That said, while the impact of outfits is questionable, there's clearly a lot going on with appearance where performers' body types are concerned. Whether this is all in programmers'/artistic directors' heads, or whether people are now attending the Met in droves because of all the thin people plastered on bus steps (or is it just increased visibility overall?) is an open question, and has clearly real effects on who we end up seeing on stage.

Friday, February 05, 2010


So, I did see Radu Lupu at Strathmore last week, but it was one of those concerts that is kind of hard to write about because I didn't feel I was really in the proper space to appreciate it. But you know, posterity and all that, so I shall say a few words.

Obviously, Radu Lupu kicks ass. There is that beloved Brahms CD of course, and then I saw his Debussy which was ridiculous. This program was Janacek's In the Mists plus the Appassionata, plus Schubert (the Sonata in A Major) after the half. It was great to hear the Janacek (yay!) live--I seriously don't get why his piano works and those of Poulenc are not programmed more often. But it was nice here.

I found the Appassionata problematic. I would never characterize Lupu's approach as "precious"--"genius of coloring" is more appropriate--but he seems to have sacrificed some of the work's momentum for the sake of pursuing those gorgeous colors. The resulting experience, while fascinating in places, was less than satisfying. But maybe it was just me.

The Schubert suffered a bit from the same syndrome but was much more successful, particularly his spectral reading of the slow movement. And then there was the encore--one of those famous Intermezzi--and all the magic came flooding back. Brahms' chords in Lupu's hands are not assemblages of notes, but single, bottomless sounds. As Alex Ross says in that review--it's as though Lupu's piano is a different instrument entirely...

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Capuçon-Angelich Trio at the French Embassy

You know how sometimes you go to chamber music and you wonder if you've forgotten how to enjoy it? Well, the snowy Capuçon-Angelich Trio show at the French Embassy tonight was not one of those occasions.

The program was Haydn (the "Hungarian" trio) and Shostakovich (the trio No. 2 in E Minor) before the half and Brahms (the trio in C Major of 1882) to close. I was searching for a word to describe this delightful, disarming Haydn, and the best I could come up with was "plainspoken"--which sounds kind of lame, yes, but there was something so forthright, so honest about the declamation of the piece, if you will, and particularly the violin of Renaud Capuçon. Haydn is so often reduced to the sensitive, but precious--this felt like Haydn had something to say.

The Shostakovich was the highlight of the evening, I think. What to say about this chilling, jaw-dropping, ecstatic performance? This trio understands what it is to imbue a piece with character. That is, they can traverse a fairly wide range of idiosyncratic perspectives without appearing gimmicky. And it is done with so much confidence, so much joy at finding out what makes the music tick and playing to that idea with fearless yet precise abandon, that it does not feel inconsistent. The blistering, desperate Allegro non troppo evoked a sort of dueling banjos suicide pact played by drunken peasants. The Largo was conceptual art--strange and terrifying harmonies floating in space. The finale--Death delighting in a perverse, funky little tune he has invented and getting entirely carried away with it.

As for the Brahms, well, maybe I am too picky about Brahms. The performance here had many very beautiful things and moments of real introspection, and it was miles better than the last Brahms chamber music I heard, the quintet which closed the otherwise stellar Marlboro concert last fall. But for my ear they still fell back too easily on those scourges of Brahms performance: over-emoting and the pervasive mezzo forte. I think to play really successful, interesting Brahms, one must have to go into it playing with restraint, and then double it. There is so much passion, so much heave and sigh in the music already, that anything more strikes a false note. Still very enjoyable and played with commitment, but not as much to savor as in the readings of the Haydn and Shostakovich.

Hope to see more of them in the future...

Update: A positive assessment from Charles Downey is up here...