11 April, 2009

Listening Log 10/04/09: Pianists and Fiddlers

Listening Log 10/04/09: Pianists and Fiddlers

In many ways the most interesting listening I had recently was to Jonathan Biss' Schumann CD, his second release after one for EMI's excellent Debut series (a series of surprisingly good curatorial choice, given the climate of classical music). Interesting because I am in general neither a fan of new artists nor Schumann's piano oeuvres. This recital captured me from the first notes. The Fantasy in C (my favorite Schumann piano work) cannot be more different from the grand Pollini, but in many ways it gets to the music even more. The Kreisleriana is even more free-wheeling but unusually stays interesting for me. The concluding Arabesque is but icing on the cake. I don't listen to a lot of Schumann piano, so I seriously got into thinking why I liked this album so much. I think I know why. Schumann's piano music is structurally difficult to grasp, and his mood swings are treated by pianists in hughly different ways, mostly unsuccessfully. Too gentle and self-effacing (Arrau comes to mind), the music becomes boring; too wild, the music becomes incoherent. Biss grades his dynamics very carefully. When he attacks he does so swiftly but with a rounded tone far removed from Lisztian ways. Yet he is certainly impestuous and there are many passages in these familiar works where eyebrows shall be raised. I was entranced and rarely felt any of his gestures to be empty ones. I haven't heard more fulfilling Schumann in a long time. He wrote his own perceptive note, which basically tells us to feel Schumann. It's easier said than done, but he has succeeded, I suspect not only with me!

I have been immersing myself in Alban Berg Quartet's TELDEC box. What immaculate playing! This is mandatory purchase for string quartet afficionados. For more discussion, see the entry in my Library A Blog.

I picked up an Angel LP of Dinu Lipatti's Mozart Piano Concerto No. 21. Despite having likely listened to more than 30 versions and over 100 times, This is my favorite version now. For more info on this performance, see the entry in my Library A Blog.

The Juilliard Quartet is an unjustly neglected quartet. Formed in the mono era it lived on long, but with innumerable personnel changes. I picked up a pristine EPIC (Columbia) set of Mozart Haydn Quartets, recorded by an early foursome (as in pic): Robert Mann (first violinist for the longest time, and excellent leader in the earlier days); Isidore Cohen (second-violinist, who went on to become more well known as violinist for the Beaux Arts Trio); Raphael Hillyer, viola; and Claus Adam, cello. The playing is clean, beautifully blended and fluent, superior to most of the "famous" quartet's before the public now. As I am in NYC, the Juilliard is probably the quartet I have heard the most LIVE, and they have never failed to deliver the meaning of the music. one of my favorite groups, musically deeper than the Cleveland, Guarneiri, Emerson etc. Indeed musically the deepest of American quartets, with the exceptions of the Budapest and the Hollywood.

Very good:
Solti's Chicago Mahler 6th (DECCA LP) is blistering and unrelenting. I was happily exhausted afterwards.

08 April, 2009

Listening Log 08/04/09: Fiddlers mostly

Listening Log 08/04/09: Mostly Fiddlers (but pianists take the palm)

Alexis Weissenberg's rather objective style turns off a lot of people but always had structural integrity. In the case of Chopin's minor piano works with orchestra, his playing enhanced the works. The French Orchestra play well under Skrowazewski (EMI LP).

The redoubtable Radu Lupu plays a well-nigh perfect Beethoven 3rd, and the Bucharest SO under Conta provide first-rate accompaniment. More impestuous and to be preferred to his Decca remake. Unfortunately it's oop (Quitessence LP).

I am not sure I should put Alexander Paley's performance of the Goldberg Variations here. This is not for the faint of heart. The performance is on 2 CDs and lasts almost 2 hrs. The reason is he takes ALL repeats and adds ornamentations. Not only that, you have to put up with occasional funereal processions too. I like some of it and find others rather strange but it is without doubt different and the Russian pianist (depsite his name) has what it takes! The playing is stylish and his touch is beautiful. I shall be returning to this. Who knows, maybe I shall put it under "intolerable" next time? But returning I am sure. The record label BLUTHNER (paino maker) is new to me.

Very Good:
Mutter surprised me in her DG integral Mozart Concertos. Relatively free of mannerism and just a little concession to period practice, the playing is miraculously detailed and tonally tightly focused yet imbued with some sense of spontaneity and surprising rhythmic elan. The LPO, although just a backdrop in the absence of a conductor, play lively enough. Although missing the last degree of give-and-take apparent in the other DG Carmignola/Abbado set, this set is nonetheless one of the best late efforts of Mutter. She surpises sometimes, like in the very broad and romantic slow movement of the Sinfonia Concertante with Bashmet.

Aside from occasional mannerism in the last movement, Inbal's recording of Schumann's 4th Symphony with the Frankfurt SO (DENON; his first was on Philips) is tightly argued and in resplendent sound, as is the norm with this team.

Sarah Chang (EMI) is all spontaneity in a lovely recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, partnered nobly by BPO/Jansons. The coupled live Sibelius though is a little lightweight for me.

Francois-Frederic Guy's Beethoven 4th concerto (NAIVE) started off well but suffered from its smaller scale halfway on. In contrast, the more boldly projected (interpretively and sonically) Piano Quintet is quite satisfying, one of the better versions. The Radio Philharmonic France did well under Philip Jourdan.

Henryk Szeryng and Roberto Michelucci both fiddled beautifully in Vivaldi's Four Seasons (both PHILIPS), in accounts that otherwise sound a little dated in the orchestral contribution.

Concert Review: Vladimir Feltsman

Concert Review: Vladimir Feltsman

April 6th, 2009
Carnegie Hall

The date was for Zimerman. I walked in pretty late and was surprised that it was not a packed house. I opened the program and found out why. Feltsman was a last-minute substitution for the "indisposed" Zimerman.

I had never heard Feltsman in concert. I heard some of his early Sony recordings and they were not particularly memorable. So I was rather annoyed in the beginning. But as soon as the playing began a slow transformation took place.

The Bach Partita No. 1 was more elastic than Perahia's account only a few days back. Many passages were played in broader strokes, with less tonal allure, but the account was alert enough to raise my interest. Beethoven's Pathetique was very nicely played, not as powerful as Perahia's Beethoven, but more supple and breathing. What is going on these days? Why is every pianist programming Bach and Beethoven (Zimerman's was to have been Partita No. 2 and Beethoven's Op 111)? Some kind of undeclared war?

The real revelation came in the second half. After a straightforward opening, Feltsman launched into the Pictures at an Exhibition like few I have ever heard in any work. To talk about orchestral sonority would not be sufficient praise for the miraculous range of colors Feltsman got from his keyboard. Deft and sure in his touch, I heard absolutely nothing tentative in his notes. Add to this some remarkably devilish rhythmic manipulation and we got what could truly be said as a kaleidoscope, not only one into the music, but one into pianism. Two bejewelled Rachmaninov Preludes finished off one of the best piano concerts I have ever heard. Would it be heresy to say the rendition is as good as Richter's? But then this is live!

Serendipity! Here's a pianist one does not have to try, or even strain, to love. One just follows his fingers. I did not miss Zimerman, and I enjoyed this concert more than Perahia's.

For a somewhat different view, read the New York Times review

Concert Review: Lynn Harrell

Concert Review: Lynn Harrell

April 4th, 2009
Washington Irving High School

I am not a great fan of Lynn Harrell, but I went because of the excellent program.

Stravinsky's Suite Italienne opened the program. Harrell's playing, as expected, was a little tame for my taste, especially in this piece which would benefit from more incisive playing. What was surprising was the very good support from his young accompanist, Victor Santiago-Asuncion, who got beautiful colors out of his piano, even when playing softly.

Webern's Three Little Pieces were just that, over almost immediately after they began. How is one supposed to savor a 12-bar piece of music, said to be complete in itself? The Debussy sonata that followed received a good reading. Here, both Harrell's and the pianist's range of colors helped to characterize the piece deftly.

After the intermission, Bach's Solo Suite No. 1 was fluently played in an old-fashioned way, no concession to period practice, but creditably with clear lines and no great distortion. Dvorak's Rondo Op. 94 and Chopin's Introduction et polonaise Brillante Op. 3 rounded out the program nicely.

Harrell's tone is a very warm one. While the bottom is sonorous, I personally find his high registers rather lacking in dynamics, even resolution (he plays DuPre's cello I think but sounds completely different). He plays and phrases in a rather smooth manner, even when he attacks. Personally I'd like things crisper.

07 April, 2009

Concert Review: Murray Perahia

Concert Review: Murray Perahia

March 31, 2009
Avery Fisher Hall
Murray Perahia

Read the New York Times review

Unlike the NYT critic, and like my pianist neighbors, I had mixed feelings about this recital.

Perahia prior to his hand injury was a pianist who played most things very smoothly and with beautiful sonority. I never for once doubted his pianistic mastery, but neither did I think he got very deep into the music. The Perahia now, as heard in this concert, surprised me in many respects.

The opening Bach Partita No. 1 for me came off the best. After the plainer Prelude, Perahia brought a good rhythm and refined colors to the various dance movements, even a touch of pathos in the Sarabande. The ending Gigue was magnificently chracterful. If the tempo was a little surpisingly fast here and there, I was not bothered. Overall, as in his recordings, this was fluent Bach.

The Mozart K332 was nicely played and sprinkled with deft touches, but I missed a songfulness that should be in the music. Perahia played so forcefully at times that one could have mistaken Mozart for Beethoven, and the concluding allegro assai was taken rather breathlessly. The ensuing Beethoven Appasionata was flawlessly played but, again, here one missed a sense of strife and conquest while awashed in a sea of sound.

I found the reading of Brahms' Handel Variations rather empty at the core, but then I have never attuned myself to this piece.

Judging from this concert, in the word of my neighbor, Perahia is now into the virtuoso thing, playing faster in general. While he gave us many beautiful details along the way, as a whole the interpretations were not particularly memorable. What is interesting to me is that, compared to when he was young, there's a lot more iron and steel in Perahia now, and that's good. What I'd hope for is that he finds a way to harness that strength while maintaining his poetic side.

Opera Review: MET/Das Rheingold

Opera Review: Das Rheingold

March 28
Metropolitan Opera
James Levine

Click for the comprehensive New York Times review

While it is amazing that Robert Lepage should produce the Met's new Ring cycle in 2010, Most opera-loving New Yorkers shall always compare any newcomer to the excellent Otto Schenk production, seen here for the last time before retiring. I have caught Die Walkure and Siegfried previously, but have never watched Das Rheingold.

I grabbed a standing room ticket not long before curtain, and managed to sneak into an unoccupied seat when the light dimmed. Here in NYC, this kind of practice is the norm. No, the ushers won't come charging at you like they do in HK for the "infraction".

The production, captured for posterity in the Levine Ring DVD set, is absolutely amazing, the illusion of water and swimming mesmerizing. There is not much to add to the Times review. I'd just say that I am not a great James Morris (Wotan) fan. Here on this occasion, I even find some of his word-pointing rather mannered. I also thought the orchestral sound was not what it was before, missing some opulence. Overall however, an evening of Wagner is soul-cleansing, a bath in deep and luxurious sound. The supertitles contibute greatly to one's enjoyment.

01 April, 2009

Concert Review: LSO/Repin/Gergiev (II)

Concert Review: LSO/Repin/Gergiev (II)

March 30th, 2009
Avery Fisher hall
London Symphony Orchestra/Repin/Gergiev
Prokofiev Symphonies 4, 5; Violin Concerto No. 2

New York Times Review

Please first read the excellent NYT review (link above). Not much to add really, just a few comments.

It was really nice to hear yet another neglected Prokofiev symphony in concert, this time the original version of the Symphony No. 4, which I had never heard till I got the (Philips) LSO/Gergiev Prokofiev set 2 years ago. It was derived from The Prodigal Son, and indeed it sounded quite ballet-like. What ba "opener"!

Both times at these concerts I was sitting next to the same gentleman and we had a great time chatting about Prokofiev and music. Turns out, like me, he's a Bruckner fan! It's actually easy to make friends in a NYC concert hall. The audience is so knowledgeable and friendly.

I enjoyed Repin's performance of the Concerto No. 2 rather more than the No. 1 a week ago. It was not the most ethereal performance but still finely nuanced, and it found Repin in more relaxed form. The encore was amazing, more so that the (guest) concertmaster absolutely held his own!! The 2 violins could be easily separated, Repin's Guaneiri darker in timber. I can't really remember the last time I heard a violin duo! And of this cabliber!

It goes without saying that the performance of the Symphony No. 5 was shattering. More than anything I had heard before, Gergiev brought out the "war symphony" aspect of this score, and the first movement felt a little like Shostakovich's was symphonies in its full-throated outcries. It also goes without saying that it was not the most lyrical account, rather an anti-romantic one that brought it closer to wartime. The powerful finale, chock-full of percussion, had inexorable momentum, but it did not erase memory of the Munich/Celibidache's live performance in HK, which had incredible fluidity and rhythmic elan in the race to the finish.