Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Alexandre Kantorow - Brahms, Liszt, Bartok & Rachmaninoff - 04/10/24

Johannes Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79 No. 1 
Franz Liszt: Étude d'exécution transcendante No.12 (Chasse-Neige)
Franz Liszt: Première année de pélerinage: Suisse (6. Vallée d’Obermann)
Bela Bartok: Rhapsody, Op. 1 
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28 
Johannes Brahms: Study No. 5 (for left hand alone) after Bach's Chaconne, BWV 1016. 1 

Although the Auditorium Parco della Musica has become one of my destinations of choice in the Eternal City, until recently my exploration of it had been limited to the Sala Santa Cecilia, its vast concert hall conceived for large-scale—or big name—performances. But then, earlier this month I finally got to check out the cool small Sala Petrassi with a delightful chamber music marathon, and last Wednesday, just in the nick of time as my stay in Rome is nearing its end, I had a ticket for a recital by one of the hottest newcomers on the scene in the last concert hall on my list, the medium-sized Sala Sinopoli. 
His name may sound Russian, but Alexandre Kantorow is as French as they come, from Clermont-Ferrand in fact, of all places, as is his dad, renowned violinist and conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow. While still in his mid-twenties, Kantorow Junior has already won countless international awards, earned endless lavish praise, and regularly performed in the world’s most prestigious venues with famous friends. Add to that pristine resume unfussy good looks and a modern casual style, and you have classical music’s latest “chouchou” (My besotted mom’s own term). 
Therefore, I was totally elated when I saw a poster advertising his concert a few weeks ago at the Parco della Musica and I promptly got a ticket for it, even if said concert would take place at the ungodly hour of 8:30 PM on a school night. But hey, the Sala Sinopoli turned out to be a welcoming and comfortable concert hall, not unlike New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, the program was exciting, and I felt totally privileged to be able to experience Kantorow’s magic in person before he inevitably moves on to bigger—if not necessarily better—venues. 

At the appointed time, an endearingly serious-looking Kantorow climbed on the stage, sat down at the piano and, without further ado, got down to business with Brahms’ Rhapsody in B Minor, Op. 79 No. 1, which happens to start at a sustained speed. Kantorow consequently hit the ground running to dazzling but not ostentatious effect, before showing profound sensitivity while going through the highly contrasting subsequent episodes as well as astonishing technique while navigating Brahms’ treacherously intricate score. Let’s face it: This young man really has it all. 
Liszt was next, with “Chasse-neige” (Snowplow), the twelfth and last of his Transcendental Studies, and “Vallée d’Obermann” (Obermann’s Valley) from the second book of his Years of Pilgrimage dedicated to Switzerland, whose intense expressiveness could have easily been used by Kantorow as a ready excuse to go all sentimental or flamboyant on us. But he didn’t, as he seems to be the kind of virtuoso who puts his superlative skills to the service of the music instead of his own ego. Hence, we got to enjoy a double dose of pure musical bliss. 
Written when budding Czech composer Bartok was still honing his craft, his Rhapsody, Op. 1 was a neat choice to conclude the first half of the program, not only because of its discreet Lisztian touches or its subtle inspiration from Hungarian music, but also because it was simply a lovely treat, one that does not appear often enough on concert programs. 

After an intermission during which fellow concert-goers around me rightly raved about Kantorow’s “amazing technique”, “soul” and “lightness (of touch)”, we were back for more with Rachmaninoff’s sprawling Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28. Starting and ending in darkness, this other rarely heard work takes the pianist and the audience through an often turbulent emotional journey, which even includes fleeting cameos by the Dies Irae, as if Rachmaninoff had not been able to channel his admittedly impressive creative juices into a tighter score, even after having made significant revisions to it. Kantorow, on the other hand, impeccably channeled Rachmaninoff and delivered another awe-inspiring performance. 
Truth be told, the last piece on the program, Brahms’ Study No. 5 (for left hand alone) after Bach's Chaconne, BWV 1016. 1, is the one that originally piqued my curiosity. Having gotten quite a few opportunities to hear Bach’s iconic Chaconne in its original form performed by various first-class violinists, I was wondering what it might sound like on the piano. Well, on Wednesday night, the result was definitely interesting, if a bit weird, and proved one more time that Kantorow can and will handle pretty much anything. 

It had been a long and no doubt taxing night for him, but he was kind enough to reward our loud and extended applause with a heart-felt rendition of “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, in the transcription by Victor Young and Nina Simone. And just as we had lost hope for more and were getting ready to leave, he eventually sat down at the piano one more time for an ethereally beautiful Petrarch's Sonnet No. 104 by Liszt, from, fittingly enough, his Second Year of Pilgrimage: Italy. And there we were.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Chamber Music Marathon - 04/07/24

Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44 
Antonin Dvorak: Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major Op. 81, B. 155 
Johannes Brahms: Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25 
Franz Schubert: Piano Quintet in A Major, D. 667 (The Trout) 
Teachers: Andrea Lucchesini: Piano 
Franco Petracchi: Piano 
Sonig Tchakerian: Violin 
Ivan Rabaglia: Violin 
Pasquale Allegretti Gravina: Violin 
Gabriele Antinoro: Violin 
Sara Mazzarotto: Violin 
Tommaso Troisi: Violin 
Giovanni Mancini: Viola 
Lorenzo Meraviglia: Viola 
Matteo Mizera: Viola 
Daniele Valabrega: Viola 
Francesco Angelico: Cello 
Christian Barraco: Cello 
Filippo Boldrini: Cello 
Ludovica Cordova: Cello 
Emanuele Crucianelli: Cello 
Nicola Giacomelli: Piano 
Dimitri Malignan: Piano 
Rodolphe Menguy: Piano 
Francesco Maria Navelli: Piano 

Springtime, along with its longer and warmer days has arrived in Rome, and while the city has been frantically and often annoyingly trying to get ready for the jubilee next year (There were 6,702 work sites in early February, and while some have ended, others have popped up), it is still a wonderful time to be here, provided that unpredictable bouts of rain and predictable hordes of tourists do not spoil la dolce vita
My concert schedule has been kind of dormant lately, mostly because the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, which is basically Rome’s classical music home team, has been spending time in Salzburg for Easter and not much else has been happening, except for the variously talented but invariably indefatigable buskers regularly performing at the numerous landmarks all over the city. 
And then, earlier last week, just as I was walking by the quiet Auditorium Parco della Musica feeling rather desperate, I noticed a poster advertising a chamber music marathon featuring works by Schumann, Dvorak, Brahms, and Schubert in memory of Alfonso Guedin at 6:00 PM the following Sunday in the Sala Petrossi. I had no idea who Alfonso Guedin was, or where the Sala Petrossi was, but I was more than ready to partake in the tribute to him. 
I soon found out though, that Alfonso Guedin was a beloved violinist and violist teacher with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, who also led an illustrious career as a violist with the Academia’s orchestra and the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai. He passed away in 2022, and Sunday’s concert would be the second one featuring teachers and students of the Accademia playing together in various combinations to honor him. 
So, on Sunday, as if to conclude a splendid and busy weekend on a high note, I had my first foray into Parco della Musica’s Sala Petrassi, which turned out to be a sleek-looking and acoustically blessed medium-sized concert hall, which kind of reminded me of Carnegie Hall’s intimate and oh so cool Zankel Hall. I was even handed a program upon arrival, which is a very unusual thing in Europe, where you have to pay for them, but hey, I did not question the favor and happily grabbed it. 
As we were already running slightly late, the Academia’s president showed up and introduced the event, paid a short tribute to Alfonso Guedin, and a lengthy tribute to retiring maestro Franco Petracchi, an eminent—and very talkative—double bass player with particularly enduring ties with the Academia, who would be playing his penultimate concert on Sunday for Schubert’s irresistible Trout. Not a bad way to wrap up his long and prestigious career in the Eternal City. 

Eventually, 20 minutes after the official start time, the marathon was finally kicked off with Schumann’s ground-breaking Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44. Indeed, it looks like, amazingly enough, nobody had seriously thought of combining piano and string quartet before. And then, in 1842, not only did Schumann decide he was game for experimenting with it, but he also ended up writing one of chamber music’s most brilliant compositions at an astonishing speed. The musicians on the stage were apparently as excited to play it as we were to hear it, and the marathon was off to an excellent start. 
After sliding down a few seats to escape the fidgety young girl behind me (Note to parents: If you’ve undertaken the laudable mission of introducing your unprepared child to classical music, an extended chamber music performance is not a good place to start), I had the ideal spot to fully enjoy the stunning opening line coming from the cello in Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major Op. 81, B 155, as well as the impressive remainder of the highly melodic, perfectly balanced, and boldly wide-ranging piece. The Czech composer may have been the least exalted name on the program, but this quintet clearly stood second to none. 

After a well-deserved intermission and a partial exodus of the audience, the second half of the marathon started with Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25, another widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre. On Sunday, however, it distinguished itself not only for its well-known ambition, magnificence, and scope, although all of them were on full and dazzling display, but also because for the first time in all my decades of concert-going, I saw somebody actually talk on their phone during the performance. The incident was short and discreet, the culprit quickly switching to texting (One has to be grateful for the little favors), but it still felt like a new low in concert behavior had been reached. 
And then came Schubert’s The Trout, whose unusual instrumentation consisting of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass would finally give us the opportunity to hear Franco Petracchi do this thing before he hangs up his double bass for good. Composed by the young city-dwelling Schubert as he was discovering and delighting in the joys of summer in the countryside, the ever-popular classic never fails to bring a breath of fresh air into stuffy concert halls. The dynamic take on it that filled the Sala Petrassi on Sunday evening did the trick once again, and also critically helped the audience members still in the race make it to the finish line in about three hours, which is incidentally and by far my best marathon time ever.