Ashkenazy and Ax in an inspired partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 3, 2017

Elgar: Serenade for String Orchestra in E minor, Op. 20
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15
 Encore:
 Schumann: Des Abends, No. 1 from Fantasiestücke, Op. 12
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op. 36

In the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert on home turf since returning from an extensive – and by all accounts, highly successful – European tour, the stage of Severance Hall boasted the distinguished presence of two of their most veteran collaborators. Serving as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor from 1987-94, Vladimir Ashkenazy made his first podium appearance in Cleveland since 2010. A pair of works by Elgar framed an early Beethoven piano concerto, the central work bringing forth the much-admired Emanuel Ax.

Vladimir Ashkenazy
Vladimir Ashkenazy, photo credit Keith Saunders

Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for String Orchestra is the work of burgeoning yet not fully formed talent, but as attractive as it is compact at just over ten minutes in duration. The lilting first movement sounded quite literally piacevole (“pleasant”) in the Cleveland strings, highlighted by a solo passage from concertmaster William Preucil. The songful Larghetto was the heart of the work, and a sure sign of all that was to come for the composer, while the brief finale recalled the opening in its return to triple meter to neatly bookend the work.

A gentle outlining of the tonic C major triad opened Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and grew in urgency to introduce Ax’s sparkling entry in the solo piano. Ax’s graceful playing flowed with an effortless charm, while there was much heightened drama in the development as Beethoven began to break away from Mozart’s model of the classical concerto, and the extended cadenza showed Ax as a fiery virtuoso. In the slow movement, one was immediately struck by the inclusion of the piano in the opening breaths, and this music of great beauty was further enhanced by the singing clarinets. At the other end of the spectrum was the jocular concluding rondo which bordered on the rambunctious. Ax responded to the warmly enthusiastic reception that followed with an deeply lyrical account of Schumann’s Des Abends (incidentally, a favorite encore of the pianist, having been his choice for the two previous concerto appearances of his I’ve seen – see here and here).

Emanuel Ax_by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Emanuel Ax, photo credit Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Written only a few years after the Serenade, Elgar’s Enigma Variations show him at the height of his compositional powers, and was a work that ensured his enduring fame. The theme was presented not without a shroud of mystery – enigmatic indeed – while the first variation was a loving portrait of the composer’s wife, Alice. A variegated chromaticism made the second variation a more pedantic affair, while interjections from the bassoon gave the following a childlike, impish humor. A rich viola solo marked the Ysobel variation in a nod towards the titular violist, and its successor (“Troyte”) was boisterous and big-boned.

The famous “Nimrod” variation was predictably a highpoint, its lush textures building to a cathedral-like resound. Given his long association with several of the London orchestras, it seemed Ashkenazy was able to offer particularly keen insight into this quintessentially British music, “Nimrod” being perhaps the British equivalent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. In contrast, the “Dorabella” variation was featherlight and stammering. A wistful cello solo made for a somber tribute to Elgar’s cellist fried Basil Nevinson, and the penultimate variation featured a fine clarinet solo from Afendi Yusuf in an invocation of Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The last variation was Elgar’s portrait of himself, grandiose, and with the self-assurance of a composer utterly convinced of his abilities (albeit a bit more modest than Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben). Surely a high mark of the banner centennial season, let us hope Ashkenazy’s next appearance does not entail another seven year wait!

Advertisements

Sublime Beethoven and primal Stravinsky from Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
September 28, 2017

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 (transc. for string orchestra by Welser-Möst)
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Encore:
Wagner: Good Friday Spell, from Parsifal

After last weekend’s stellar revival performances of Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, this week the Cleveland Orchestra turned attention toward purely orchestral music in scores of Beethoven and Stravinsky – a work from late in the career of the former and early in that of the latter, both uniquely revolutionary and iconoclastic. A crown jewel of this season’s offerings is the upcoming cycle of Beethoven symphonies, and the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor served as a generous prelude, presented in a lush transcription for string orchestra by Welser-Möst himself. During the preconcert conservation with him and executive director André Gremillet, the conductor noted that Beethoven’s ethos often resonates with the values on which the United States was founded, and with regards to the late quartets, that they are “half-symphonic”, thus making the expansion to a larger ensemble a logical realization of the composer’s vision.

CLO093017_322_select
Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Welser-Möst’s transcription was fastidiously faithful to Beethoven’s original, with the thoughtful addition of the basses adding weight where appropriate in doubling the cello line an octave below, and imposingly aligned in the back row – a positioning preferred by the Vienna Philharmonic, an ensemble with which Welser-Möst is intimately familiar. The work’s nebulous, enigmatic opening gave way in due course to the heft of the movement proper, and for one accustomed to hearing it as a quartet, the sight and sound of so many players in precise unison was really quite astounding. The scherzo had the charm of a minuet, contrasted by a more rustic trio, its halcyon bliss interrupted by stormier interludes, bringing to mind the mercurial Schubert.

The heart of the quartet is surely the central and quite extensive “Heiliger Dankgesang”; its unassuming beginnings in the Lydian mode grew to a heartwrenchingly beautiful resound. A sprightly foil was to be found in the brief Alla marcia, effectively a bridge to the finale, with a solo passage at the end given to concertmaster William Preucil as a quasi-cadenza. The last movement was overflowing with nervous energy and angst, an affront to the string quartet’s classical origins and indeed an augur of Romanticism.

In the aforementioned preconcert talk, Welser-Möst touched upon his keenness to include watershed works in the orchestra’s centennial season, and The Rite of Spring certainly fits the bill (and the conductor noted that upcoming performances of Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are in that pantheon as well). The impossibly high passage in the solo bassoon unleashed a performance of unrelenting virtuosity, from its cataclysmic, primal climaxes, to the strained moments of a world of sacrificial desolation, the latter particularly notable at the beginning of Part II. It was abundantly clear how deeply ingrained this music is in the orchestra’s DNA, having championed it for decades (think of their landmark 1969 recording with Boulez), yet I was struck by how Welser-Möst opted for crisp articulation and dry textures; while it boasted razor-sharp clarity, it lingered a step below the red-hot intensity other conductors might champion.

Nonetheless, the ovations that followed were richly deserved, and the audience was treated to a rarity: an encore on home turf. Welser-Möst introduced it as a “beautiful piece for a beautiful audience”, otherwise known as the “Good Friday Spell” from Wagner’s divine final opera, Parsifal. Newly-appointed principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf had a shining moment in the spotlight – a sign of good things to come – and after the ferocity of the Stravinsky, the encore allowed the evening to conclude in peaceful radiance.

CLO093017_237_select
Franz Welser-Möst and The Cleveland Orchestra, photo credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Gardner and Denk deliver inspired performances at Mostly Mozart

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra
Edward Gardner, conductor
Jeremy Denk, piano
David Geffen Hall
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
July 29, 2017

Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music, K477
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
 Encore:
 Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, K545 – 2. Andante
Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485

A New York summer tradition for over half a century, the Mostly Mozart Festival is a paean to not only its eponymous composer, but as the name suggests, those who bore his influence.  Saturday night’s program embodied just that with music of Mozart prefacing works by Beethoven and Schubert that exuded a quintessentially Mozartean classicism.  At the podium was the probing English conductor Edward Gardner who opened the evening with a user-friendly introduction, explicating the connections between the selections on the program.

168-colour-hi-res-E-Gardner-28June2016-c-B-Ealovega
Edward Gardner, photo credit Benjamin Ealovega
The only work from Mozart’s pen on the printed program was a certified rarity, namely the Masonic Funeral Music.  In his remarks, Gardner noted the enlarged wind section – inclusive of basset horns and the contrabassoon – and humorously commented that this orchestration was perhaps well-suited to Tony Bennett.  He then demonstrated the work’s striking interpolation of a Gregorian chant, aptly describing it as of an “astounding resonance.”  Gardner’s reading was deftly balanced, exuding a funereal pathos that anticipated the Masonic passages in The Magic Flute, and made a case for more frequent hearings of this finely-crafted gem.

The heart of the program was Beethoven’s genial Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, which brought forth the charismatic soloist Jeremy Denk.  Denk’s unaccompanied entrance was of a dreamy serenity, and bell-like clarity of tone.  His fingers spun a wondrously flowing melodic line, and not at the expense of plumbing the intensity of the work’s more dramatic moments.  Denk and Gardner were a somewhat unusual coupling; while the pianist was patently idiosyncratic, often looking out into the audience with closed eyes, and playing with a remarkable (perhaps too remarkable) flexibility, Gardner was much more straight-laced.  In spite of the incongruity of their approaches, their results were largely inspired, and Gardner’s sensitive accompaniment was adroitly balanced with the piano.

Denk began the first movement’s cadenza unassumingly, only to soon fill the depths of the Geffen Hall with resound.  Agitated strings opened the Andante con moto, in due course calmed by the beauty of Denk’s chordal passages.  The jocular concluding rondo was elegant yet down to earth, pearly and effervescent even through the minor key episodes.  Denk obliged the enthusiastic audience with an encore by – you guessed it – Mozart, the slow movement from the Piano Sonata in C major, K545, familiar to any young piano student.  Under Denk’s hands, this was a study in poise and refinement.

While Schubert looked ahead to Romanticism in his tempestuous Fourth Symphony, the Fifth was quite to the contrary: a glance backwards towards his classical antecedents.  The Festival Orchestra delivered the opening movement with a blended and homogeneous sound, opting for the repeat of the graceful exposition, and Gardner guided orchestra and audience alike through development’s exploration of distant keys with aplomb.  Gorgeous tones seemed to pour from Gardner’s baton in the slow movement, highlighted by an especially fine flute solo from Jasmine Choi, who that evening treated concertgoers to a pre-concert recital with pianist Roman Rabinovich.  A bit more fire was introduced in the minuet, though not without a certain joviality.  The finale was taken at a brisk pace, a beaming Haydnesque wit tempered by Mozartean drama, a fitting way to close Schubert’s lovely tribute to his predecessors.

Summers@Severance opens with hearty Beethoven

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
July 14, 2017

Beethoven: Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

As a respite from the sometimes problematic conditions of al fresco performances, the Cleveland Orchestra offers the opportunity to hear them indoors through the summer at Severance Hall (which, incidentally, was recently featured on CNN as one of the finest music venues in the US) in tandem with their usual Blossom residency.  Matters opened in auspicious form Friday evening, with music director Franz Welser-Möst leading an all-Beethoven program as a preview of sorts for the upcoming season’s Beethoven symphony cycle.

22157127-mmmain
Summer festivities at Severance Hall, photo credit Roger Mastroianni

The Egmont overture made for a dramatic opening, apparent from the sustained introductory chords which which given with a glowering intensity.  The principal winds were particular standouts when in dialogue with one another, and Welser-Möst had taut control of the work’s sonata form architecture.  A piece of unrelenting Sturm und Drang, it was only occasionally mitigated by brief forays in the major, hardly enough to hint at the work’s jubilant conclusion.

In similar fashion to the preceding, the Symphony No. 1 in C major boasted a deftly-shaped chordal introduction, but otherwise this sprightly early work was worlds apart.  The theme of the movement proper crept in unassumingly, and burst with the self-assurance of the young composer.  A secondary theme was very finely given in the oboe by Frank Rosenwein, and with the Austrian on the podium, the orchestra sounded like a proper Viennese ensemble.  The genteel slow movement oscillated back and forth between playing in unison and various instrumental combinations in counterpoint, while the vigorous abandon of the third movement was a bona fide scherzo in all but name.  The finale opened in a stately manner, echoing the symphony’s beginning, only to proceed in unabated high spirits.

Beethoven’s Fifth, that rather well-known quantity in the parallel minor of the First, rounded off the evening, for which the orchestra swelled to 19th-century proportions.  Welser-Möst’s tempo choice was brisk and exacting, and despite the familiarity of this territory one never felt he was merely coasting on autopilot.  Rosenwein’s solo passage in the development was a striking moment of stasis in a world otherwise defined by searing drama.  There was a wonderful, burnished richness of the strings in the slow movement, and the winds were of note in the variation that perhaps interpolates La Folia.

In the penultimate movement, granite blocks of singularity gave way to delicate string filigree, although a somewhat more conservative tempo choice in the latter perhaps would have yielded clearer articulation.  This led attacca to the brassy exultation of the finale.  Welser-Möst opted for minimal dynamic contrast, which had the interesting (and perhaps intended?) benefit of making the ghostly return of the gesture from the third movement all the more haunting.  That mood of course wasn’t maintained for long in this archetypal journey from darkness to light, and there was no ambiguity that we had firmly arrived at C major in the extensive coda.  This drew a rapturous ovation from the packed house, and if Friday was any indication, next season’s traversal of the nine symphonies promises to be enormously rewarding.

Perlman delights in Lyric Opera recital

Itzhak Perlman, violin
Rohan De Silva, piano
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
April 23, 2017

Vivaldi: Sonata in A Major for Violin and Continuo, Op. 2 No. 2, RV 31
Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24, Spring
Schumann: Fantasiestücke, Op. 73
Ravel: Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major

Encores:
Kreisler: Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francœur
Tchaikovsky, transcribed Auer: Lensky’s Aria from Eugene Onegin
Wieniawski: Etude-Caprice in A minor, Op.18 No. 4
Williams: Theme from Schindler’s List
Brahms, transcribed Joachim: Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor
Franz Ries: Perpetuum mobile, from Suite No. 3 in G major, Op. 34

An Itzhak Perlman recital is always a major event, as evidenced by the near-capacity crowd he drew at the cavernous Civic Opera House.  With an opera season ending in March, the venue was certainly put to good use in an enjoyable afternoon from Perlman and long-time recital partner, the Sri Lankan pianist Rohan De Silva.  A stage set of classical pillars provided an elegant backdrop (the advantages of performing in an opera house), and video screens showing close-up views in real time flanked the stage, helping to create a sense of intimacy in a large hall.

Exclusive-press-shot-Itzhak-3253-new_by-Lisa-Marie-Mazzucco
Itzhak Perlman, photo credit Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Perlman arranged his program chronologically, beginning with the Sonata in A major for Violin and Continuo by Vivaldi.  An energetic presto opened, effectively serving as a warmup to the sprightly second movement.  The slow movement was brief but genuinely expressive, and a joyful finale rounded off this compact work of a mere seven minutes.

In an unannounced change from the printed program which suggested Beethoven’s first violin sonata (Op. 12 No. 1), Perlman elected for the more seasonally appropriate though well-worn Spring sonata (Op. 24).  It opened with a wonderfully bucolic grace, although Perlman’s intonation was regrettably suspect at times.  A languid Adagio molto espressivo followed with some especially lovely playing from De Silva.  The two closing movements both were marked by a delightful interplay between violin and piano, and an elegant melody heightened the finale.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 offered some Romantic fervor, with Perlman presenting them in the continuous, unbroken cycle that the composer intended, rather than three separate works.  I was struck by the rippling of the first and the fire of the last, yet in these works originally envisioned for cello or clarinet, they sounded somewhat timid on the violin, requiring more vigor to compensate than Perlman managed to muster.

Ravel’s relatively brief Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major was the only work programmed for the second half in what was surely a calculated move to allow ample time for encores.  Beginning with a single note line in the solo piano, the first movement was one of coloristic writing, pitting the violin and piano on more austere terms with one another than the previous works which favored conviviality.  Ravel’s own take on American musical traditions came to light in the second movement “Blues”, much like in the Piano Concerto of a few years later, replete with blue notes and slides.

Perlman played the accented pizzicatos with his bow hand and the others were plucked up on the fingerboard, but in the former one wished for a greater abrasiveness.  The last movement was acutely virtuosic, yet the delivery was rather dry and detached – but certainly not enough not to garner an enormous standing ovation, as much a recognition for Perlman’s extraordinary career as for Sunday afternoon’s performance.

And ample encores there were – no fewer than six.  While the four sonatas fared a bit lackluster, it was during the encores that the violinist truly sprung to life, and Perlman became Perlman.  With a charismatic stage presence, he explained to the audience that he brought with him a list of every work he’s played in Chicago – humorously suggesting it dated back to 1912 – so as to avoid duplication.  No Perlman recital would be complete without a work of Kreisler, and he offered the illustrious composer-violinist’s Sicilienne and Rigaudon in the style of Francœur, once erroneously thought to be a bona fide work of its namesake.  Perlman exuded an effortless charm in the Sicilienne; the Rigaudon proved that his remarkable prestidigitation is still very much intact.

“Lensky’s Aria” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin followed – quite appropriate as Lyric Opera presented the complete work on the same stage just a few months prior – in a transcription by the legendary Leopold Auer.  A work of rich melancholy, it proved to be surprisingly well-suited to the violin.  The Wieniawski Etude-Caprice in A minor came next; a signature work of Perlman, it never fails to impress.  This was only outdone by the Theme from Schindler’s List – one of John William’s finest film scores, it should be remembered that Perlman played in the original soundtrack.  His deeply moving performance had particular poignancy on Sunday given the proximity to Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Two briefer works brought the afternoon to an agreeable close: the searing passion of the first of Brahms’ rousing Hungarian Dances, and the dizzying acrobatics of Franz Ries’ Perpetuum mobile.

Perlman Lyric
Civic Opera House

Osorio makes an impressive entry in Northwestern’s Skyline Piano Artist Series

Jorge Federico Osorio, piano
Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall
Evanston, IL
April 1, 2017

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2, Moonlight
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D959
Debussy: Préludes, Book II

Encores:
Granados: Andaluza, No. 5 from Danzas españolas, Op. 37
Granados: Orientale, No. 2 from Danzas españolas, Op. 37

For piano enthusiasts, the Skyline Piano Artist Series at Northwestern, now in its second season, has become an essential complement to the Sunday afternoon recitals downtown at Symphony Center.  The venue of choice for the series is the recently built Galvin Recital Hall, one of Chicagoland’s most striking concert spaces, an intimate setting boasting stellar acoustics and stunning views of Lake Michigan and the distant Chicago skyline.  Chicago-based pianist Jorge Federico Osorio made a welcome appearance and offered a weighty program of Beethoven, Schubert, and Debussy.

JFO101006_035_ret3-682x1024
Jorge Federico Osorio, photo credit Todd Rosenberg
Beethoven’s ever-popular Moonlight sonata opened, the lights of the city skyline reflecting on the water making a fitting visual backdrop, though it should be remembered that the work’s ubiquitous sobriquet didn’t originate with the composer.  Under Osorio’s hands, the first movement was given a luminous, rippling effect, and treated almost like a nocturne.  The buoyant second movement served as a light interlude to the stormy finale.  In this impressive outpouring, Osorio mined the emotional depths of Beethoven’s explosive psyche; a few minor technical mishaps did little to detract from the drama.

In change from the order on the printed program, Osorio proceeded with Schubert’s late, great A major piano sonata (D959) to juxtapose the two epochal Viennese sonatas, both of which redefined the genre.  The grandeur of the capacious opening movement had an ineffable Schubertian grace, and Osorio opted for the lengthy repeat of the exposition.  A thoughtful sense of narrative guided the pianist in the labyrinths of the development, and its introspection was maintained through the mysterious, arpeggiated coda.  The Andantino had the lyricism of a song without words, and built to menacing outbursts in the strikingly contrasting middle section, while the scherzo danced in its mercurial drama, complemented by an especially lovely trio.  In the finale, the main theme’s blissfulness belied a dramatic potential which Osorio was keen to explore, and the movement harked back to the sonata’s declamatory opening in its concluding moments.

File_000
The dramatic setting of the Galvin Recital Hall
The second half was devoted to Debussy’s substantial second book of twelve preludes, a panoply of pianistic watercolors requiring a formidable technique.  Brouillards was given a limpid reading, the coloristic washes of sound suggesting the titular mists.  Contrast was soon to be had in the barren Feuilles mortes, and Osorio struck an ideal balance between the fiery and the sensuous in the faux-Spanish La puerta del Vino.  The quicksilver Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses was fantasy-like, and the resonant bells of a distant cathedral were suggested in Bruyères.  Osorio imbued Général Lavine – eccentric with its requisite eccentricity, one of Debussy’s rambunctious appropriations of the American cakewalk and ragtime music (and incidentally, this concert occurred on the 100th anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death).

The moonlight shimmered in La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune, and how apt it was given this prelude and the Beethoven sonata that concertgoers would leave the hall to the sight of a beautiful crescent moon.  Ondine was perhaps the most impressionistic of the set in its fantastical evocation of the titular water sprite.  The bombast of Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. was countered by Canope, which for Osorio was a study in the beauty and purity of tone.  While Les tierces alternées sounds like the name of a dry Czerny etude, here the alternating thirds were used for solid musical purposes rather than mere technique.  The Préludes concluded with the unrelenting technical tour de force that is Feux d’artifice, and Osorio delivered it with panache and élan.

No Osorio recital would be complete without music from the Spanish speaking world, and the two Granados encores filled the gap.  Both were extracted from the 12 Danzas españolas: a jaunty “Andaluza”, fittingly paired with the touchingly lyrical “Orientale”.

Hamelin explores the piano sonata in commanding Cleveland recital

Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Gartner Auditorium
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH
March 21, 2017

Haydn: Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 1
Feinberg: Piano Sonata No. 2 in A minor, Op. 2
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, Appassionata
Scriabin: Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 64, Messe blanche
Chopin: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35

Encore:
Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau, No. 1 from Images, Book I

Marc-André Hamelin has built much of his reputation on fearless exploration of the byways of the piano repertoire, and his recital at the Cleveland Museum of Art – presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition – was no exception, juxtaposing the familiar with the obscure.  All the works on the program bore the title “piano sonata”, although none adhered very closely to the standard model of the form, a true testament to the medium’s protean potential.  Hamelin delivered the program with his signature peerless technique, yet this was far from an evening of vapid virtuosity, but one of probing artistic discovery.

hame.lrg
Marc-André Hamelin, photo credit Rachel Papo
The survey of piano sonatas appropriately began with Haydn, in the two movement C major sonata, Hob. XVI:48.  Given Hamelin’s association with the fingerbusting works of the 19th– and 20th-century, Hamelin and Haydn might sound like an unnatural fit, but as he as shown in his extensive recordings of the composer’s sonatas for Hyperion, it’s an inspired coupling to be sure.  From the onset, the performance was marked by deftly nuanced articulation and crisp ornamentation.  There were sporadic moments when matters felt a bit heavy-handed which lesser pedaling perhaps could have ameliorated, but overall this was a study in precision, replete with minor key excursions that foreshadowed Beethoven, and the all too brief finale exuded joie de vivre.

Certified rarities followed, the first two piano sonatas of the Russian composer and pianist Samuil Feinberg.  His cycle of twelve piano sonatas is a remarkable achievement, unjustly neglected, and Hamelin is rumored to be recording them.  These two sonatas, in A major and minor respectively, were of a similar aesthetic, the consecutive opuses hardly demonstrating Feinberg’s eventual compositional developments (both dating from 1915; the final sonata dates from 1962), yet Hamelin presented them with a singular intensity and an unflinching commitment to this little-known music.

The First Sonata was of a brooding Romanticism, while the dense textures would have sounded murky in lesser hands, Hamelin achieved a lucid clarity of voices, and delineated a clear trajectory in spite of the composer’s tendency to meander.  A touchingly lyrical melody characterized the Second Sonata, and a highpoint came in its dramatically cascading climax.

Beethoven’s mighty Appassionata is a recent addition to Hamelin’s concert repertoire; I’ve been eager to hear his take on this durable work, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.  The opening movement built to massive climaxes that carefully avoided bombast.  There was much-needed repose in the slow movement, enhanced by the adroitly voiced chordal melody, while the finale had an unrelenting nervous energy in its breathless race to the tragic end, given at a dangerously brisk tempo.

One of Hamelin’s first recordings of his long and fruitful association with Hyperion was of the complete Scriabin piano sonatas; the arresting Seventh Sonata is a work that has been in his fingers for a very long time.  Explosive and mercurial, the sonata proceeded with inevitability towards the trilling, mystical ending, shrouded in enigma.

Chopin’s B-flat minor sonata concluded the program, and in the passionate first movement Hamelin drew out a fluid melody over an undulating accompaniment.  He eschewed the repeat of the exposition, although in this case I would suggest the repeat is a wise interpretative choice given the movement’s proportions.  There was a menacing determination in the scherzo, while its middle section was indulgent in sumptuous melody, quintessentially Chopinesque.

No empty sentimentality was to be had in the tragic heights of the famous funeral march, and Hamelin had a velvet touch in the contrasting lyrical section.  His utter and absolute command of the keyboard was on full display in the moto perpetuum finale, yet phrases were keenly shaped to make the sonata’s revolutionary ending more than mere volleys of notes.

Hamelin obliged the modest but enthusiastic audience with an encore in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, shimmering and liquescent.

Igor Levit auspicious in Chicago recital debut

Igor Levit, piano
Symphony Center
Chicago, IL
March 12, 2017

Rzewski: Dreams, Part II
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

Encore:
Shostakovich: Waltz-Scherzo, No. 5 from Dances of the Dolls, Op. 91b

One of the most exciting Russian pianists of his generation, Igor Levit made a somewhat belated Chicago debut in Symphony Center’s Sunday afternoon piano series.  A thoughtful program comprised of a recent work of Frederic Rzewski paired with Beethoven’s mighty Diabelli Variations made for a probing, rigorous recital, and the stellar reputation that preceded Levit lived up to expectation.

Igor-Levit_51A3267_Robbie-Lawrence_4_klein
Igor Levit, photo credit Robbie Lawrence

Inspired by the 1990 Akira Kurosawa film Yume, Rzewski was moved to compose his first book of Dreams (the English rendering of the film’s Japanese title) in 2012-13, followed by a second book of four further works in 2014.  Part II was composed expressly for Levit who gave the world premiere in 2015, and one couldn’t have asked for a more convincing interpreter of this substantial 35-minute work.  The opening “Bells” began in the depths of the piano’s lowest register, to my ears suggesting the beginning of Liszt’s Funérailles, and proceeded at a glacial pace of imposing power.  “Fireflies” was a lighter affair, with a series of trills bringing the titular insects to life, reminiscent of Scriabin’s F sharp major etude from Op. 42 (nicknamed after a much less pleasant insect – the mosquito), and in due course building to wild intensity.

“Ruins” was a chaconne of sorts, its contrapuntal intricacies looking to the Baroque as a guiding light, and a particularly striking effect was achieved with tremolos in both hands.  The concluding “Wake Up” was quintessential Rzewski in its appropriation of folk music, here the song of the same title by Woody Guthrie.  The Guthrie was first introduced in the right hand alone, and appearing again at the very end, but with jarring tone clusters, and movement’s climaxes certainly served to wake one up indeed.

The incomparable Diabelli Variations of Beethoven made for a logical juxtaposition as they were of deep inspiration to Rzewski in his own monumental set of variations, based on the Chilean protest song The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (and incidentally, local admirers of Rzewski’s piano music will have a chance to see that work performed by Ran Dank at Mandel Hall next month).  Levit gave the opening theme a sprightly workout before embarking on the work’s epic trajectory, Beethoven’s compendium of a lifetime’s worth of discoveries in piano technique.

Under Levit’s self-assurance and commanding execution, there was essentially never a dull moment in the hour-long work.  The presto of Variation X was given at a mind-boggling velocity, while time was all but suspended in the solemnity of Variation XIV.  Deft voicing was achieved in the somber Variation XX, while just minutes later there was much humor to be had in Variation XXII’s interpolation of Mozart’s “Notte e giorno faticar”.  Levit clearly delineated the contrapuntal lines of the Fughetta (Variation XXIV), and the rippling effect he created in Variation XXVI was wondrous.  The final, slow variations entered the spiritual realm, culminating in the massive Fugue (Variation XXXII), and the closing minuet, seemingly a nostalgic look backwards to the work’s humble beginnings.

After the weight of the Beethoven, some lighter fare was needed.  Levit responded in kind with a lone encore, Shostakovich’s “Waltz-Scherzo”, bubbling with an irresistible impish charm.

Van Zweden, Trifonov, and the Cleveland Orchestra find fresh inspiration in Mozart and Beethoven

Cleveland Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Daniil Trifonov, piano
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
November 27, 2016

Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488
Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Cleveland Orchestra presented a sumptuous program anchored by seminal works of Mozart and Beethoven.  After being heralded earlier this year as the New York Philharmonic’s music director-designate, all eyes have been on Jaap van Zweden.  The program played on his strengths, and even the most familiar of repertoire sounded dynamic and anew under his probing guidance.

Antwerp_JvZ1-263x200.jpg
Jaap van Zweden, photo credit Bert Hulselmans

The afternoon began in somewhat less familiar territory with Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, a work the orchestra has not performed since the 1970s.  A triptych of succinct, interconnected movements, it encapsulates the composer’s pacifist leanings and is an important precursor to the watershed War Requiem.  The opening Lacrymosa began quite strikingly in the timpani and piano, keyboardist Joela Jones providing an unrelenting, anxious ostinato.  The oboe passages of principal Frank Rosenwein were strained and pained in a texture that built to surging brass climaxes in its ethos of despair.

Nervous flutes opened the Dies irae but the heart of the piece was in the concluding Requiem aeternam.  While in lesser hands it can sound like a plodding passacaglia, under van Zweden’s baton it was peaceful and plaintive, building to an arching lyricism in serene resolution, worlds apart from the austerity of the opening.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 brought forth the remarkable young pianist Daniil Trifonov, who has an important connection to the city having studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music.  The concerto opened in the airy textures of the strings, with a gesture as gentle as an exhale, and it was with that naturalness the music flowed.  Trifonov’s entrance was unassuming and graceful, and he emphasized the work’s lyrical beauty and dramatic contrasts as per his propensity to the Romantic repertoire, though never in excess.  The cadenza was fleet and deftly balanced, displaying Trifonov’s astonishing dexterity.

7714
Daniil Trifonov

Cast in the relative key of F sharp minor, the slow movement was filled with longing, and the winds were almost decadent in the splendor of their singing lines.  Trifonov would often glance heavenward as if seeking some divine inspiration, fitting for music this sublime.  The sprightly rondo finale is inherently familiar to many Clevelanders, in its frequent appearances as theme music on WCLV.  Although there were shades of darkness in its minor key episodes, the overall mood was of pure joie de vivre.

Perhaps the greatest interpretative challenge of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is making one of the most popular pieces in the literature sound anything but trite and clichéd.  Van Zweden proved amply up to the challenge as was apparent right from the crispness of the arresting opening, in a first movement that was lean and taut.  Its violent contrasts were emphasized, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as it seemingly could devolve into wild abandon at any moment, yet matters were always tightly controlled.

The slow movement began with some especially lovely tones in the cellos, and the interplay between the martial and lyrical themes was cleanly delineated.  I was especially struck by the clarity of the third movement’s fugato section, the contrapuntal lines weaving in and out of the strings.  The finale was an exuberant and joyous affair, and the noteworthy addition of the trombone and the piccolo heightened its sense of drama to bring the concert to a rousing close.