Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Les Violons de France - Mozart, Saint- Saëns, Massenet & Vivaldi - 11/26/11

Mozart: "Eine kleine Nachtmusik"
Saint-Saëns: "The Swan" from The Carnival of the Animals
Massenet: 'Méditation" from Thais
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Rightfully famous for being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Paris seems to take endless delight in casually displaying one stunning sight after another to its predictably elated visitors. Few of them, however, are as unforgettable as the medieval Sainte Chapelle, which quietly stands in the shadow of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité. While the outside looks like just another Gothic church, the inside is such a breath-taking festival of light and colors through the 15 stained-glass windows reaching up to the star-covered ceiling that you’ll believe you have accidentally stepped into heaven.
Therefore, while I was trying to find some musical performances in the City of Lights that would take place during our stay there and came across a concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Les Violons de France in the Sainte Chapelle, I knew that my mum and I just had to go, so we went. Even though the darkness of the evening prevented us from enjoying the full visual effect of the interior, the delicate lighting created a less spectacular but more intimate atmosphere that was perfectly appropriate to savor one of the undisputed masterpieces of the Baroque genre to our heart's content.

But just as we were getting mentally prepared for the melodic lightness of Vivaldi’s “Spring”,  the evening suddenly took an unexpected turn for the better when the first notes coming from the stage sounded unmistakably like… Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”! And that was not all. It was followed by a graceful “Swan” from Saint- Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, and then a soaring “Méditation” from Massenet’s Thais, led by the assertive soloist Frédéric Moreau. This lovely trio of violin all-time hits was such a treat that I almost forgot what we were there for.
Luckily the musicians did not, and they finally treated us to four vibrant seasons, slightly pared down, yes, but still beautifully resplendent of myriad of colors. The acoustics were favorable and the temperature comfortable, so Vivaldi’s beloved work got to thoroughly enchant its attentive audience one more time.

After a rousing ovation, Frédéric Moreau came back for a diabolically virtuosic “Dance of the Goblins” by Barzini. Another sure-fire crowd pleaser that, true to form, concluded the concert on an irresistibly fun note.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Ysaye & Franck - 11/14/11

Mendelssohn: Violin Sonata in F Major
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No 7 in C Minor, Op. 30, No 2
Ysaye: Solo Violin Sonata in D Minor, Op. 27, No 3, "Ballade"
Franck: Violin Sonata in A Major

Planning a vacation out of town is always tricky because no matter how attractive the destinations are (and let’s face it, Provence and Paris are not half bad) some exciting performances are inevitably going to be missed on the home turf. So the goal is to squeeze as much as possible before and after in order to minimize the sacrifices and not have them come back and haunt me while I’m abroad.
That’s why on my first official vacation evening I found myself in the Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall for a recital by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood, a nice way to ease myself into some carefree time before flying off to the City of Lights the next day. The composers on the program, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Ysaye and Franck, promised some engaging complex "comfort music", and the two headliners some predictably brilliant playing. What more could I ask for to leave the Big Apple on a grand note?

Mendelssohn’s long-ignored Violin Sonata in F Major opened the concert with full-blown romantic élan and decisively highlighted the effortless chemistry between the two musicians. From the very beginning, the vibrant combination of the piano’s playfulness and the violin’s lushness cast a very special spell over the audience, prompting a shy but still heart-felt ovation after the first movement, something that I had never witnessed during a sonata. It seems that every time I think I have seen everything in a concert hall, a new unexpected occurrence manages to prove me wrong.
After Mendelssohn’s radiant lyricism, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 7 brought some subtly dark hues to the general mood as soon as the first notes resounded. After relishing the monumental "Kreutzer" last week, I appreciated all the more the human scale of the No 7. Here again, Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood played their parts with surgical precision and ardent virtuosity.
After intermission, Joshua Bell was back on the stage by himself for Ysaye’s Solo Violin Sonata in D Minor and provided some glorious evidence that practice, practice, practice does pay off. Although I don’t know how much he had practiced this particular piece, the “Ballade” certainly gave one of the most popular violinists in the world the perfect opportunity to make full use of the bag of tricks he’s been filling up all these years. After all, nobody gets to celebrate their 30th performance in 26 years at Carnegie Hall, which Joshua Bell did on Monday night, by slacking off.
With Sam Haywood back at the piano, they concluded the program with an unabashedly passionate rendition of Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major. In turns dreamily luminous and intensely fiery, this stunningly beautiful love letter has long been a favorite among musicians and listeners. Taking their task obviously to heart, the two artists treated their clearly captivated audience to an absorbing, richly nuanced performance.

We simply couldn’t leave one another like this. So the night concluded with a delicate "Nocturne" by Chopin, which rose and unfolded like a memorable, bitter-sweet good-bye... until next time.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Leonidas Kavakos & Enrico Pace - Prokofiev, Auerback & Beethoven - 11/08/11

Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No 1 in F Minor, Op. 80
Auerbach: Selections from Twenty-four Preludes for Violin and Piano, Op. 46
Beethoven: Sonata for Violin and Piano No 9 in A Major, Op. 47 (Kreutzer)

There are musical masterpieces whose performances I make a point not to miss, and then there are masterful musicians whose concerts are considered high priority on my calendar. Highly regarded violinist Leonidas Kavakos is unquestionably one of them, so when I saw that he was scheduled for a recital in the Zankel auditorium at the Carnegie Hall with equally reliable pianist Enrico Pace, I promptly made plans to attend.

The icy first movement of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No 1 felt even gloomier than usual in Zankel’s pleasantly intimate but wintry cold environment. One of the Russian composer’s darkest pieces, it nevertheless sporadically offers some welcome outbursts of lyricism and vitality. Finding the right balance between mournful slowness and melodic energy, Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace played off of each other with virtuosic precision and turned what could have been an interesting but depressing exercise into a complex and rewarding tour de force.
The ten selections from the Twenty-Four Preludes for Violin and Piano by Lera Auerbach were a nice sample of the contemporary multi-faceted Siberian artist’s œuvre. All equally short and instinctively attractive, they covered a wide spectrum of moods and sonorities, which gave the two musicians plenty of opportunities to display their acute interpretative skills.
Last, but not least, Beethoven’s formidable Kreutzer sonata unraveled without frills but plenty of warmth and meticulousness. One of Beethoven’s wildest rides, its fiendishly difficult twists and turns received a royal treatment and concluded the program with a grand bang.

We thought that we were not going to get it, and many people had already given up and left, but the duo eventually came back for an encore in the form of a diabolically festive “Danse russe” from Stravinsky's Pétrouchka. Another proof that patience does pay off.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - Salonen, Scriabin & Rachmaninoff - 11/05/11

Conductor: Robert Spano
Salonen: Nyx
Scriabin: Le poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy, Symphony No 4), Op. 54
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 3 in D Minor, Op. 30 – Garrick Ohlsson

There are some musical works whose performance I must attend, providing they take place within a reasonable radius of my location at the time, and Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous Piano Concerto No 3 definitely holds a prime spot on that list. Moreover, when the performer is the superb pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the venue Carnegie Hall, getting a ticket for it becomes a simple matter of course. The other details of the concert involved The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by its music director, Robert Spano, the New York première of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Nyx and the promising-sounding Poème de l’extase by Scriabin. All nice, but all second fiddle, so to speak, to the majestic piano masterpiece.

In the program’s notes explaining Nyx, which takes its name from the mysterious Greek goddess, Esa-Pekka Salonen promised us a nebulous time. True to form, he had us wander aimlessly in a universe of floating melodic bubbles for 20 minutes, never exactly knowing what was going on but happily going along for the ride. A wide range of sounds making full use of the large orchestra kept on elusively appearing, mixing and fading, which in turn created myriad shades of colors and textures. Not the kind of music that grabs you and never lets you go, but rather a composition that can and will inconspicuously seduce you if you let it.
Another continuous work of 20 minutes is Scriabin’s Poème de l’extase, which moved us toward a romantic mood, even if I found the title slightly misleading. It was good, but not THAT good. Nevertheless, Robert Spano drew a warm response from his musicians, and this all went down very well.
But enough nit-picking. We were there for Rach 3, and boy did we get a glorious performance of it. Garrick Ohlsson may not be the flashy type, but on Saturday night he showed enough virtuosic fervor to make those huge Romantic waves beautifully come alive and totally submerge us. Always in impeccable control even during the most dazzling fireworks displays, the winner of the 1970 Chopin International Competition proved that he knew a thing or two about intricate nuances as well by constantly highlighting some new details. Brilliantly seconded by the orchestra, Garrick Ohlsson magisterially handled the Himalaya of piano concertos without fuss but plenty of heart, earning himself a well-deserved, resounding ovation.

As the audience was finally calming down, he came back for an encore, which was a sight as welcome as unexpected. Because, really, what do you do after Rach 3? After identifying it as “too famous to be announced”, he delivered the most delicate "Clair de lune" from Suite bergamasque by Debussy, masterly keeping the final notes hanging in the air for several breathless seconds. A precious little gift that was treasured all the way home, and beyond.