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.

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