Sunday, October 27, 2019

Marc-André Hamelin - Scriabin, Prokofiev, Feinberg & Schuberg - 10/22/19

Scriabin: Fantasy in B Minor, Op. 28
Prokofiev: Sarcasms, Op. 17
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 3
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960

Although my official 2019-2020 Carnegie Hall season got underway on the Tuesday evening of the previous week with the winning team of the Dover Quartet and Emanuel Ax in Zankel Hall, its start actually felt truly complete this past Tuesday evening as I was entering the iconic Stern Auditorium with my friend Joe for a recital by Marc-André Hamelin, who was paying his annual fall visit to Carnegie Hall.
Understated almost to a fault, the Canadian pianist has nevertheless been distinguishing himself by his impeccable technique, profound musicianship and fierce spirit of adventure for decades now. Therefore, we were understandably very excited at the prospect of hearing him tackle an attractive program consisting of three obscure Russian works of the early 20th century by Scriabin, Prokofiev and Feinberg, as well as some more traditional musing about death by 19th century Schubert. Definitely a good enough reason to make it to the corner of W. 57th Street and7th Avenue even on a miserable rainy evening.

Never one to make life easy for himself, Hamelin started his performance for Alexander Scriabin’s dauntingly challenging Fantasy in B Minor, whose sweeping dramatic intensity turned out to be a dazzling contrast to its countless subtle nuances, the tightly controlled virtuosic splash being expertly packed in a mere 10 minutes. Now that’s what I would call hitting the ground running.
Sergei Prokofiev’s pianist skills were second to none, which probably explains why he was able to compose with unwavering confidence for the instrument even at a fairly young age as his student work Sarcasms positively proved on Tuesday night. And if the five short movements contain a wide range of widely contracting unusual sounds, they also make room for some unmistakable touches of true lyricism which Hamelin took the time to cleverly point out.
Samuil Feinberg concluded the Russian part of the program with his Piano Sonata No. 3, a dark and turbulent journey with just a bit of introspection for good measure, which kind of brought us back full circle to Scriabin in terms of unabashed intensity. And if Hamelin did  not hesitate to relentlessly pound on the long-suffering piano when the score required it, he also managed to nail some impressive acrobatics before naturally landing on his feet.
While the Russian half of the program had been richly rewarding, after intermission Hamelin let off the pedal and treated the audience to a stunningly beautiful performance of Franz Schubert’s death-contemplating Piano Sonata in B-flat Major. Serenely extending over 45 minutes, the composer’s last instrumental work shows a deep sense of acceptance, which Hamelin delicately conveys in his unpretentious (This was no shrink session) and unsentimental (This was no soap opera) performance.

As if the substantial concert had not been enough, Hamelin heeded our insistent applause and came back with three encores that included a transcendental Barcarolle No. 3 in G-flat Major by Fauré, a playful "Général Lavine - eccentric" from Préludes by Debussy, and an endearing "Music Box" from Con Intimissimo Sentimento, No. 5 by… Hamelin himself. There’s clearly nothing the man cannot do.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Dover Quartet & Emanuel Ax - Britten, Brahms & Schumann - 10/15/19

Britten: String Quartet No. 1 in D Major 
Brahms: String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat Major 
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 

Last Tuesday night was opening night at Carnegie Hall, and all three concert halls were at long last buzzing with excitement again. After a bit of an inner conflict, I had decided to skip the glittery big bash featuring our neighbor to the south, the highly capable Philadelphia Orchestra, their unstoppable music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and their special guest, the dainty pianist Hélène Grimaud, for the more subdued, but just as appealing, concert downstairs in Zankel Hall featuring the much-lauded Dover Quartet and the reliably terrific pianist Emanuel Ax.
Beside the sterling reputation of the musicians and the wonderful intimacy of the venue, the ultimately decisive factor had been the fact that the program included a string quartet by Benjamin Britten, an intriguing composer whose œuvre I have always admired without knowing very well. So I eagerly joined the masses for the sold-out performance.

The last important work that Benjamin Britten wrote while living in the United States, his String Quartet No. 1 establishes itself as fundamentally experimental right from the very beginning with ethereal sounds from the restless violins that would now and then be punctuated by seemingly random pizzicatos from the intruding cello. And off we went into the expansive, highly intricate first movement. It was followed by a rough-around-the-edges scherzo and a delicately melancholic adagio, before the composer’s keen interest in rhythms found another vivid expression in the highly complex and downright electrifying last movement. The razor-sharp and crystal-clear performance of the Dover Quartet was a thrilling as a Carnegie Hall season-opening number ought to be.
After Britten’s engaging quirks, we moved on to the solid confine of more traditional fare with Johannes Brahms’ String Quartet No. 3. As winningly sophisticated as anything the incurable perfectionist has ever written, the composition also expresses an irrepressible joie de vivre, which is much more unexpected on his part. But hey, we happily took it all in, especially since quite a few passages highlighted the fabulous skills of Milena Parajo-van de Stadt, the quartet’s fierce and fearless violist.
After intermission, Emanuel Ax joined the quartet for Robert Schumann’s genre-defining and universally beloved popular Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, whose last noted appearance in pop culture was in Yorgos Lanthimos’ deliciously wicked period piece The Favourite. Still conventional enough to be dismissively labelled as “too Leipzigerisch” by no less than Franz Liszt, but indiscriminately admired by pretty much everybody else, Schumann’s Piano Quintet is a beautifully melodic gift that keeps on giving, and it sure did on Tuesday night as the five musicians treated the audience to an effortlessly virtuosic and genuinely warm-hearted performance of it.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Sibelius &Berlioz - 10/05/19

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Sibelius: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Minor, Op. 47
Augustin Hadelich: Violinist 
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 

When I create my wish list for an upcoming season, a few top priorities never fail to pop up, such as Sibelius’ stunning Violin Concerto. And when it is paired with a good old friend that I haven’t heard in a while like Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and performed by the New York Philharmonic, all the better. 
The composition matters, of course, but so does the soloist. And I was thrilled to see that the fearless violinist for the occasion – because fear has to be checked in when tackling the Sibelius – would be Augustin Hadelich, not only because our paths unfortunately have not crossed very often, but also because when they have, it has never been for the Sibelius. So I was looking forward to experiencing them both in one swell package.
Programming warhorses such as those two generally does not bring in the avant-garde crowd, but it did bring a lot of people on Saturday evening, and David Geffen Hall looked pretty much filled to capacity. And why not? I personally could not imagine a better way to wrap up our first cool, crispy, sunny, and overall splendid, fall day in the Big Apple.

The Sibelius Violin Concerto being one of the masterpieces that I obsess over, I try to hear as often as I can, which is still not as often as I’d like. On Saturday evening, Hadelich’s thoughtful performance of it did nothing but renew my deep love and endless admiration for the gripping emotional journey. His tone may have been subtle, borderline understated at times, but he knew exactly when to pull out all the stops to dazzling effect. From the icy opening to the goofy “dance of the polar bears”, he maintained his solid command of the piece, extracting evocative tiny details while always keeping the big picture in mind.
It is tough and risky to follow the Sibelius, but after we loudly demonstrated our appreciation for his immense talent, Hadelich came up with the perfect encore in his friend Ruggiero Ricci’s arrangement of Francisco Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra. A wonderful little treat that was an exquisite combination of lightness and complexity.
After intermission, we all happily embarked on yet another performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, one of the most popular works in the classical music canon. An extended fantasy with never a dull moment, the engrossing score requires a crack orchestra to be able to unfold in all its magnificent opium-fueled glory. Luckily, the New York Philharmonic sounded particularly energetic and unwaveringly committed on Saturday night, taking the audience along the series of breathless episodes filled with love, dance, pleasure, loss and terror, with just the right amount of mystery thrown in for good measure. In fact, the general excitement was so palpable that my right seatmate, who had copiously slept during the Sibelius, remained wide-awake and totally engaged for the entire trip, all the way to the thunderous ovation.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

New York Classical Players - Wagner, Bartok, Holst & Beethoven - 09/28/19

Music Director and Conductor: Dongmin Kim 
Wagner: Prelude to Tristan and Isolde for Strings (arranged by Yoomi Paick) 
Bartok: Divertimento for String Orchestra Sz. 113 BB, 118 
Holst: Jupiter (arranged by Samuel Adler) 
Beethoven: Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (arranged by Yoomi Paick) 
Michael Katz: Cello
HaeSun Paik: Piano 
Josef Spacek: Violin

One week and one day after my season-opening concert with the New York Philharmonic, I was eagerly looking forward to attending my season-opening concert with the New York Classical Players, who obligingly were performing it at the W83 Auditorium, a nice concert hall even closer to my apartment than the David Geffen Hall. And while the feisty chamber orchestra may not be quite as world-famous as the larger ensemble down the road just yet, its musicians have proven time and time again that they can readily compete with their more established colleagues in terms of technical skills and adventurous spirit.
Moreover, this special occasion would not be just the first program of a new and goodies-packed season. It would also celebrate the 10th anniversary of the New York Classical Players’ creation; in other words, 10 years of high-quality classical music offered for free to everybody in an ever-expanding radius that has so far reached New York City, New Jersey, California and Korea, and will also include Bolivia this season.
Back in the Big Apple, after a busy day in Coney Island for a fun outdoor art exhibit, Brighton Beach for authentic Russian food, and the Upper West Side for a de rigueur Italian dinner at Celeste, my visiting friend Vittorio and I eventually plopped ourselves down among the eclectic audience for an evening of Romantic works by Richard Wagner, Bela Bartok, Gustav Holst and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Probably more by chance than by design, my season-opening concert by the NY Phil started with the overture to a potential opera by Phillip Glass, and my season-opening concert by the NYCP would start with the prelude to a landmark opera by Richard Wagner. And it is worth noting that the prelude to Tristan and Isolde was first heard in concert before the entire opera was finished too. Beautifully arranged by Yoomi Paick for a chamber string orchestra and superbly performed by the Classical Players on Saturday night, the music vividly expressed unquenchable longing in big lush Romantic waves that were as overpowering as the intense passion uniting the two lovers.
After the gorgeous agony of forbidden love, we were shaken up from our ecstatic torpor by Bartok’s Divertimento and its zesty liveliness straight from Eastern European folk-dance tunes. The mood grew significantly darker during the second movement, but perked up again for the Finale, and provided us with a priceless opportunity to experience first-hand the blazing talent of violinist Tai Murray, who was filling the role of concertmaster with innate musicality and irrepressible flair.
After the intermission, we moved to England for one of Holst’s popular Planets, and let’s face it, if you’re going to pick one, it might as well be mighty Jupiter, AKA “The Bringer of Jollity”, which had been arranged for strings by Samuel Adler. And the glowing strings of the orchestra sounded like they were having a jolly good time indeed bringing out the punch and polish of the highly influential and enduringly popular suite in just about eight minutes.
We concluded the evening with Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano arranged by Yoomi Paick. True to its commitment of showcasing promising young talents, the NYCP had invited cellist Michael Katz and violinist Josef Spacek to be part of the featured trio, along with eminent pianist and teacher HaeSun Paik. Consequently, there were quite a few musicians on that stage, and it is to maestro Kim’s credit that all the various moving parts ended up making one impressively seamless whole, with nevertheless a special mention for Katz who brilliantly distinguished himself in what had to be the most challenging part of the score. Even if it does not have the same scope and rigorousness as some of the composer’s better works, the easily engaging Triple Concerto is still a natural charmer in the right hands, and we certainly had them on Saturday night.