Sunday, March 11, 2018

Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Obukhov, Liszt, Messiaen, Scriabin & Beethoven - 03/08/18

Obukhov: Création d'or 
Obukhov: Révélation 
Liszt: Nuages gris, S. 199 
Liszt: Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este 
Messiaen: "Le Courlis Cendré" from Catalogue d'oiseaux 
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53 
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier) 

Forty-eight hours after a generally satisfying contemporary music concert in Zankel Hall and twenty-four hours after another exasperatingly disruptive nor’easter in New York City, I was back at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening, in the large Stern Auditorium this time, for a recital by eminent French (Lyonnais, even!) pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
In typical Aimard fashion, his program was uncompromisingly ambitious, wildly eclectic yet extremely focused. It included a series of well-known and less well-known ground-breaking short pieces in the first half and Beethoven’s game-changing “Hammerklavier” in the second half. Just when we thought that we were done with spectacular Sturm und Drang for a while, there came Ludwig!

Before the concert started, my fellow Music Ambassador Karen and I were too busy catching up to read the program notes and therefore did not realize that the first half of the concert would be performed without a pause until, well, we did. But it soon became clear that there was nothing even remotely gimmicky about the unusual set-up, which had obviously been carefully thought out by the ever-scrupulous artist. Consequently, the widely different works seamlessly transitioned one into the other to gradually formed a coherent and fascinating whole.
The concert started with Nicolas Obukhov’s “Création d'or” and “Révélation”, whose strongly expressive components ranged from quasi-mystical to fully diabolical, before moving on to Franz Liszt’s mournful “Nuages gris”. The subsequent “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” perked things up a bit with the transparent sounds and mystical aura of the graceful Italian Renaissance fountains, before making way to a pointed description of the Eurasian curlew in Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Courlis Cendré”. Alexander Scriabin concluded the eventful journey with his intense one-movement Piano Sonata No. 5, which was as technically complex as musically fulfilling.
Aimard being a musician whose intellectual curiosity, technical skills and emotional commitment seem to know no bounds, there was no wonder that this 50-minute marathon was the kind of awe-inspiring tour de force that leaves the audience as breathless and exhilarated as the performer. And so we were.
But the evening was far from being over as the alleged main attraction, the monumental “Hammerklavier”, was still coming after the well-deserved intermission. Highly unconventional when it first came out, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 has become one of the most popular pillars of the piano repertoire. Big, bold, and devastatingly beautiful at its core, the “Hammerklavier” is a ride like no other, and Aimard readily delivered a clear-minded and eloquent performance of it.

When it came to the encores, Aimard rightfully pointed out that nothing is really possible after the “Hammerklavier”. But that did not stop us from insisting, but our unrelenting pleas eventually earned us a haunting reading of Gyorgy Kurtag’s “...waiting for Susan” from Játékok, Book VI.

Friday, March 9, 2018

JACK Quartet & So Percussion - Glass, Dennehy & Trueman - 03/06/18

Philip Glass: String Quartet No. 8 
Donnacha Dennehy: Broken Unison 
Dan Trueman: Songs That Are Hard To Sing 

After quite a few concerts that included a lot of tried and true classics, my concert of last Tuesday evening was resolutely focused on contemporary classical music with new compositions by Philip Glass, Donnacha Dennehy and Dan Trueman, who were all in attendance for the occasion, because there is simply no time like the present. Truth be told though, my main reason for being there, beside checking out the new piece by Philip Glass, was taking advantage of the two-for-the-price-of-one opportunity to hear the awesome local ensembles that are the JACK Quartet and So Percussion.
So I happily took my seat among the sold-out crowd in Carnegie Hall’s intimate Zankel Hall at the unusual time of 7 PM, which in fact turned out to be a serendipitous blessing as our second nor’easter in two weeks was slowly but surely approaching the city. And if it meant no time for a pit stop or proper nutrition after a hectic day in the office, so be it.

Although he celebrated his 80th birthday in a packed Stern Auditorium back in January 2017, Carnegie Hall's current Composer-in-Residence Philip Glass is clearly showing no signs of slowing down. What is even more amazing though, is that his recent output has been as fresh and inventive as his younger colleagues’, and at times has even left them in the dust. A case in point is his terrific String Quartet No. 8, which was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and had its US premiere on Tuesday. Naturally, having a crack ensemble like the JACK Quartet perform it made the whole experience even more outstanding.
Adroitly combining the quartet’s traditional fast-slow-fast structure with his own ground-breaking minimalist style, Glass has come up with a relatively short but oh so satisfying work that is tightly constructed and overflowing with a whole bunch of appealing ideas. The JACK Quartet effortlessly made it their own, superbly emphasizing the composition’s brilliance and warmth. The evening had decidedly started at the very top, and could logically only go down from there, which it to some degree did.
Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s Broken Unison, which was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and had its world premiere on Tuesday, had one major asset going for it, and that was the four technically accomplished and endlessly versatile musicians of So Percussion. Their extraordinary dexterity was indeed on full display as they seamlessly moved among marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones and the booming bass drum, and managed to bring the pleasant enough, but ultimately innocuous, 20-minute piece to a whole other level.
Stretching over 45 minutes, American composer and musician Dan Trueman’s Songs That Are Hard To Sing, which was having its New York premiere on Tuesday, was by far the longest piece of the program. Taking his inspiration from songs that he loves but finds hard to sing, Trueman wrote five resolutely deconstructed songs to be played by both ensembles combined. Each song had its own truly enjoyable moments, which resulted essentially from the impressive virtuosity of the eight musicians and the sheer uniqueness of some of the sounds they produced. I, however, could not help but lament that so much prodigious talent was not used for an overall more exciting score. Where was Philip Glass when you needed him?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Anne-Sophie Mutter and Lambert Orkis - Previn, Bach, Brahms & Penderecki - 03/04/18

Previn: The Fifth Season for Violin and Piano 
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 
Brahms: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in A Major, Op. 100 
Penderecki: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2

Because all good things have to come to an end at some point, my mini Brahms Festival ended yesterday afternoon with a recital by Anne-Sophie Mutter and her long-time music partner Lambert Orkis in Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium in the company of my friend Vy An. After the three glorious piano trios and the passionate first piano concerto I have heard recently, I was ready to downsize with his beautifully intimate and richly expressive Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2.
However, no matter how much I was looking forward to hear the expert musicians tackle it, I have to admit that I was even more eager to hear the queen of the violin take on Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, especially the all-mighty Chaconne. Let's face it, if anybody can climb the Himalaya of the violin repertoire in grand style, that’s her.

The concert opened with the world premiere of André Previn’s Fifth Season for Violin and Piano, which is essentially a 10-minute piece representing an additional season to Vivaldi’s legendary Four Seasons. Commissioned by Anne-Sophie Mutter and Carnegie Hall, it in fact does not have much to do with the Baroque tradition, but its pleasantly imaginative score, in particular the jazzy overtones and dazzling fireworks, did allow the musicians to display their skills and have some fun.
In my wildest dreams, I hear Anne-Sophie Mutter play Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas in one concert, but if I have to settle for just one of them, it has to be the Partita in D Minor, of course. Yesterday afternoon, she handled it with her trademark virtuosity for an impressively pristine, assured and vibrant reading of it. The composition’s daunting complexity obviously did not deter her from brilliantly expressing its intense emotional content and life-affirming grandeur. As the audience erupted in applause, Vy An efficiently summed up what everybody was probably thinking by admiringly pointing out: "Elle gère". Mutter had indeed everything under control, and if you did not know why the Chaconne is such a huge deal, this was the ultimate eye-opening experience.
Brahms’ Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 is a staple in concert halls, and it is always with the same pleasure that I get to eave-drop in the lively conversation between the two instruments. After Mutter’s fierceness in Bach – and a well-deserve break for all – the duo’s take on Brahms sounded downright understated. Standing on one’s own next to the unreservedly cooperative but naturally formidable Anne-Sophie Mutter has to be a difficult task, even after 18 years and counting of playing together. Nevertheless, Lambert Orkis generally managed to make the piano’s voice heard, and the result oozed plenty of subtle lyricism and temperate eloquence.
Things picked up again with violinist manqué Krysztof Penderecki’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2, which he wrote especially for Mutter. Extending over an eventful half-hour, the work was not as esoteric as its Polish avant-garde pedigree had led me to expect. But there was still plenty of prickly dissonances and tense exchanges within the symmetrical structure that is rigorously organized around the mysterious Nocturno. Mutter and Lambert took everything in stride though, and delivered an infectiously energetic performance of it.

Back on more conventional territory, the dreamy, borderline sentimental encore was Mischa Elman’s arrangement of Schubert’s "Ständchen" from Schwanengesang, D. 957, No. 4. Because when all has been said and done, you can’t go wrong with trying a little tenderness.

Friday, March 2, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Brahms & Prokofiev - 2/28/18

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 on D Minor, Op. 15 
Yuja Wang: Piano 
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 

Almost one week after basking in the magic of Brahms’ three landmark piano trios with Ax, Kavakos and Ma at Carnegie Hall, this past Wednesday I headed to David Geffen Hall for Brahms’ no less celebrated first piano concerto with Yuja Wang, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic. Because one can simply never hear too much Brahms, especially in such brilliant company.
But the classical music repertoire does not completely revolves around Brahms – or so I’ve heard – and branching out is rarely a bad idea. A case in point was the programmatic pairing of Brahms's expansive concerto with Prokofiev’s slightly shorter Symphony No. 5, a perennially popular piece written to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit during and after World War II. Somehow it sounds more topical today than ever.

Nobody has ever claimed that Brahms did not know how to build suspense, not only by delaying the release of his agonized-over works for years, if not decades, but also by delaying the entrance of the solo instrument in at least his violin concerto and first piano concerto. On the other hand, once they get going, there is nothing stopping them, especially when the soloist is the indomitable Yuja Wang, who naturally packs a mighty force – and a mighty talent – in her diminutive frame.
So it fell on the orchestra and maestro van Zweden to kick start the concerto, which is never an easy task as the music immediately swells into sumptuously Romantic waves that pave the way to its magnificent 50-minute journey, but they did it head-on. What's more, the performance by the young pianist of the score written by the young composer vividly displayed all the passionate intensity and endearing impetuousness of youth. There were some monumental struggles between piano and orchestra, as well as some moments of aching beauty, which all together provided plenty of grandeur and high voltage.
Although we really had to beg for it, the typically generous Miss Wang came back for not one, but two lovely encores. Mendelssohn made a surprise appearance with his Song without Words in F-sharp Minor, Op. 67, No. 2, before we got back to Brahms with his Intermezzo in C-sharp Minor, Op. 117, No. 3.
After intermission, the hall, which had been packed during the first half of the concert, was visibly missing quite a few people, but the ones who stayed were largely rewarded. Prokofiev’s supremely accomplished Symphony No. 5 is as accessible as they come, constantly bursting with attractive melodies and superb lyricism, not to mention some macabre strutting and dark brooding thrown in for good measure. In short, there’s a little bit of everything for everybody in it.
The orchestra was obviously having fun with it, emphasizing the most dramatic passages and happily tossing off the sarcastic jokes. They also made the wise decision not to try to make it sound pretty, but the music sure came out vibrant and engaging, and clearly pleased the audience all the way to the truly exciting grand finale.