Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pinnock Plays Landowska Tribute Show at LOC

I am trying to start this review without some dull generic observations about "the harpsichord" but that is proving difficult, so... It strikes me that it is very hard to lie on a harpsichord, which is a good thing. Yet the harpsichord as solo instrument suffers much the same fate as the organ in its accessibility to modern ears, i.e. neither gets a fair shake on record. To get into the harpsichord at length, you really need to hear it live, whereas a modern piano recording, if not the same as a live performance, is pretty persuasive on its own.
As for the program...Trevor Pinnock is just a delight, and peppered the concert with background on Landowska and fascinating introductions to the works. His playing is infectious and charming in a DIY sort of way. He finds the singing or dancing line in a piece and lets the rest coalesce around it. Also, he is not about to let a little gold leaf deter him from doling out the punishment that bad keyboard deserves.
Highlights of the program included a Handel Chaconne and Variations opener, picturesque pieces by William Byrd and contemporaries (Bells, Birds, that sort of thing), and a mid-17th c "Lamento" of Jonah Froberger that evaporated into an exuberant reading of the Bach French Suite No. 5. The second half featured some elegant French numbers and three Scarlatti sonatas, austere and grave on the harpsichord in a manner quite different from their usual impression on the modern keyboard.
Also onstage was one of Landowska's own pleyel harpsichords, a beast of an instrument with *4* sets of strings (the extra is basically a 17th c subwoofer) and somewhere between 6 to 14 pedals below. Like a harpsichord but with teeth. Pinnock demonstrated the instrument at the close of each half, and had a good chuckle with the audience over a number of false starts from difficulty maneuvering his feet (good sketch fodder for the nerdiest variety show ever, mind you). The effect when he eventually got it right was quite special though, adding additional dimensions of depth to the sound, to which he attributed some of the "grandeur" Landowska communicates in her recordings.
Update: Migette's review here, also check this very instructive matchup she posted of Landowska and Pinnock playing Bach. Downey has great resources here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Christine Brewer, last noted for her much lamented disappearance from the last Schenk Ring cycles in 2009, and last heard doing some paint removal at Lyric Opera in their 2007 Frau Ohne Schattens, presented an extraordinary recital with Craig Rutenberg at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater Wednesday.
This was really a highlight of the year, I think, so apologies in advance for any unpalatable fawning. The sheer splendor and depth of her voice, which, impressive from the back of the opera house, is exhilarating at close range, makes this a rather different experience than your regular thoughtful, tasteful recital. Brewer's pleasures are maybe just a bit passe: she delivers great art to be sure, but a key vehicle for that is the sheer visceral thrill of her generous instrument.
The program was an interesting mix of American songs. I loved the first selection, Gian Carlo Menotti's Canti Della Lontananza, though the interpretations did not always seem as polished as selections later in the program and there was some finding of footing during the first pieces. Rutenberg's playing was especially distinguished in the lovely piano part here, and by the final two songs Brewer had arrived in force. The other cycle in the first half was a knockout. The work, by a contemporary composer, Alan Smith, uses texts from the love letters of a soldier killed in World War II, and Brewer delivered a chilling and deeply moving performance. One moment that will not soon be forgotten: the text of the final song is a transcription of the telegram that announced the soldier's death to his wife--the sound that Brewer unleashed on "Secretary of War" is something very few singers are capable of, I think.
The second half had some trouble competing with the wrenching drama of the first, with more of a grab bag program. Rutenberg offered a nice selection of the piano music of Virgil Thompson as a segue to the final aria from Thompson's "Mother of us All", of which Brewer offered a towering, account. Then some Ives songs, by turns sublime (Shall we Gather at the River) and nutty (the Operahouse song).
The program closed with selections from a new Brewer CD, a tribute to encore numbers favored by divas past, i.e. Flagstad, Traubel, Farrell, etc. Some of these were a bit slight, but all fairly hard not to like. The bluesy Harold Arlen number, "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe" was perhaps the highlight, demonstrating Brewer's substantial abilities in theater/non-classical/etc songs. This kind of thing is so hard to do in a way that would ever convince a reasonable person they wouldn't rather be hearing a theater voice do it. Given all the firepower at her disposal, Brewer would be about the last singer I'd imagine successful in this material, but she pulls it off through some skillfull modulation of her sound and deep instincts about how to properly communicate these songs. This was confirmed in her second encore, a charming and remarkably unaffected rendition of "Mira" from the musical Carnival. The other encore was Ives' arrangement of "In the Mornin'."
Update: Midgette nicely captures what a pleasant and relaxed affair the whole thing was here.
More update: BTW, not sure where Midgette was going with her last graf quibble about this being a "not altogether stirring" evening in the review above. An inconsistent presentation, I'll grant you, but if this doesn't qualify as stirring for a vocal recital I'm not sure what does.
Downey has no reservations about what's up, and includes a ton of great links and context for the interesting selections on the program...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Boston in DC, sans Levine

Very nice program from the Boston Symphony Saturday despite Jimmy's unfortunate absence--Roberto Abbado did guest conducting duties instead, and Peter Serkin joined as a soloist for a program of Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven (a wholesale revision of the Levine program, I believe, but I'm not going to go digging out my old WPAS mailers). Hearing awesome orchestras that one has never heard before is always a treat, and Boston did not disappoint. Everything that separates the men from the boys was on display here: a distinguished sound with great depth, unerring balances, consistently fine winds and brass across the board, and skillz to spare when it comes to executing precision moves.
I find my reasons for liking or disliking lead-off Haydn (No. 93 in this instance) somewhat mysterious, but this I liked. Perhaps it was largely just my first chance to really hang with their sound for a while, but the whole thing had a gravity and deliberateness that was hard not to admire, though Abbado maybe let things get a bit four square at times compared to the more organic Haydn to be had elsewhere.
The Bartok piano concerto No. 3 was certainly the most eagerly anticipated thing on the program, but I'm not sure if it entirely succeeded. The first movement unfolded with a romantic heaviness that seemed at odds with the work--one need more of that mercurial Bartok flavor to really capture the flickering textures of the music. The second movement was closer to the mark--Abbado's glacial pacing and Serkin's solemn reading nicely capturing the elemental qualities of nature or folk people and stuff tapped into here. The finale was exhilarating to be sure, with some truly astounding playing by Serkin, though again, the propulsion seemed derived from sheer force of will, not Bartok's babbling rhythms.
After the half was Beethoven 5, and, well, you really can't go wrong with a great orchestra playing that, now can you? I will take this opportunity to reprint a bit of that famous E.M. Forster passage in case you haven't seen it in a while (extended passage at Sandow here):
"No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back," breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendour or heroism in the world. After the interlude of elephants dancing, they returned and made the observation for the second time. Helen could not contradict them, for, once at all events, she had felt the same, and had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right. Her brother raised his finger; it was the transitional passage on the drum.
For, as if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He appeared in person. He gave them a little push, and they began to walk in a major key instead of in a minor, and then--he blew with his mouth and they were scattered! Gusts of splendour, gods and demigods contending with vast swords, colour and fragrance broadcast on the field of battle, magnificent victory, magnificent death! Oh, it all burst before the girl, and she even stretched out her gloved hands as if it was tangible. Any fate was titanic; any contest desirable; conqueror and conquered would alike be applauded by the angels of the utmost stars.
And the goblins--they had not really been there at all? They were only the phantoms of cowardice and unbelief? One healthy human impulse would dispel them? Men like the Wilcoxes, or ex-President Roosevelt, would say yes. Beethoven knew better. The goblins really had been there. They might return--and they did. It was as if the splendour of life might boil over and waste to steam and froth. In its dissolution one heard the terrible, ominous note, and a goblin, with increased malignity, walked quietly over the universe from end to end. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! Even the flaming ramparts of the world might fall. Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for the second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the gusts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things.
The first three movements were played beautifully, if without too many distinctive touches, besides perhaps a grittier sense of the drama in places. But Abbado's breakneck finale (with the BSO hardly breaking a sweat) was simply fantastic, irrepressible music-making, reminding all how much visceral power there is in this music, no small accomplishment given its familiarity. Walking out of the auditorium, I realized that the version on my ipod for a while now is some burnished Karajan snoozer and well, after hearing Beethoven like this, that just won't do.
Update: Downey a shade less enthusiastic about both the band and Abbado here. Given the comparison he draws with the NSO and BalSO ("the playing remained at a very high level...although not so far above our two local orchestras as one might have expected"), I would add that "boys" above is general and not meant to impugn any local teams. Downey also suggests that the problem might not have been less Bartok flavor, but rather inferior Bartok product.
Midgette is a more admiring of the Bartok and likewise measures Abbado's professional readings against Eschenbach's more emotionally involved approach here...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Goerne, Eschenbach, NSO in Zemlinsky

A quick note on last night's Lyric Symphony with Matthias Goerne, Twyla Robinson, and the NSO. And I shall only speak about the second half because I mistook the early start time for a 7:30 rather than a 7, and missed Eschenbach playing and conducting Mozart piano concerto something or other. I find the penalty box only barely acceptable for opera, and it is beneath consideration for something like a concerto, so I enjoyed a cocktail and the nice weather on the KC terrace.
The audience was on board, judging by some kind of encore that turned a half hour Mozart appetizer into a 50 minute first half, but I'm thinking Eschenbach is going to be around for a while, so there should be other chances to hear him play. And not that anyone is listening, but the unfortunate practice of programming Mozart as the least interesting thing on the program continues unabated. I get it, of course, and the reportedly abysmal attendance at last week's un-partnered Messaien just goes to show that unfamiliar works all by their lonesome continue to be box-office death. But I feel no good can come of making audience members attracted by more ambitious programming come to disdain Mozart because his works are the price of admission just to get to what they really came for.
Anyhow. Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony is being presented as part of the Maximum India Festival which wraps up this week, as the texts for baritone and soprano are taken from a German translation of the Bengali poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. As you probably know, the musical language is right in that sweet spot of lush German early 20th century tonality, high on drama and sweep, with that big everyone-gets-to-play approach to orchestral texture akin to Mahler and Strauss. Eschenbach and the NSO certainly got the precision and depth of texture, but there was something lacking in the drama. I was sitting pretty close, I'll admit, but there was something a bit static in the dynamics and a tendency to drive the volume and pace rather than letting things play out naturally that detracted from the impact.
The biggest hook for the evening was Matthias Goerne, recently forced to bail on the upcoming Met Wozzecks for knee surgery, much to everyone's chagrin. Goerne needs no introduction of course, he brings a unique combination of vocal beauty and artistic intelligence to his work, and this is a great piece for him, showcasing his interpretive skills in a great range of settings, from the despondent opening song to frenzied heights and back again. Yet he remained credible and involving throughout while offering a number of beautiful moments. And of course, where many other fine baritones would descend into shoutiness in material like this, that Goerne magic keeps things buttery and on point all the way through.
Soprano Twyla Robinson was a strong partner, with an inviting sweetness to her voice and power where required. Her bio highlights work in Strauss and it was easy to hear how this would be a natural fit. She was less than convincing in places, particularly her first number about the "junge Prinz" but standing next to one of the preeminent recitalists of our time and dealing with kind of weird subject matter is not a recipe for success. I appreciated that she tried to incorporate some idiosyncratic effects to heighten the characterization, though some might not...
Update: Takes from Downey (including an appraisal of Eschenbach so far) and Midgette...

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Kissin at the Kennedy Center

Evgeny Kissin brought some of the old-time magic to the Kennedy Center yesterday, in the all-Liszt program he is touring with (here's John von Rhein's take on the Chicago stop). One goes to a Kissin show expecting technical brilliance, of course, but comes away with so much more. In their finest moments, his concerts let you experience the overwhelming possibilities of the instrument in a way that no one, at least that I've heard live, can.
Kissin excels most in the work of the composers who are the true keyboard animals--hence his association with Chopin, and here, Liszt. This was a program to upend the preconceived notions of the Liszt averse, skeptical and indifferent alike. Kissin demonstrates the extraordinary breadth of this music and is able to exploit its reaches like few can, from surging rage to heart melting poignance.
He kicked things off with an aching Ricordanza from the Transcendental Etudes, followed by the main event--the B Minor Sonata--a consuming voyage that brought shivers and some less than dry eyes in the house, as well as some terrifying climaxes that no doubt ensured some overtime for the Kennedy Center piano tuner. The second half-opener Funerailles perhaps lacked some of the blackest recesses to be found elsewhere, but I was sold by the end. A deeply felt Valse d'Obermann followed, and was probably a personal favorite of the afternoon. Regulation play ended with three selections from Liszt's Venezia cycle, perhaps the least ambitious Liszt on the program, profundity-wise. Kissin demonstrates however, that if you're not utterly charmed and seduced by these pieces, someone is doing it wrong.
I was going to crib the identities of the encores from someone else but the reviews are slow in coming so I'll just have to admit that I can only call the last and most obvious one off the top of my head: a tender, valedictory Liebestraum.
Update: The coverage is starting to come in...here's Thomas Huizenga (NPR)...Tim Smith...Downey (who notes the other two encores as Liszt's arrangement of Schumann's "Widmung" and a movement from his "Soirees de Vienne")