Monday, March 12, 2018

Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky at Severance

An all-Russian program featuring conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and pianist Daniil Trifonov lured Daniel and I to Severance Hall Saturday night, and we were richly rewarded both in terms of the compositions and the performances.  At a time when Russia’s government is rightly distrusted, it’s worth remembering President Kennedy’s admonition that “no government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue”, and that Russia’s musical exports have richly benefited music lovers the world over.

The program began with Stravinsky’s Scenes de Ballet – a most unusual work that was commissioned for a mixed program at Ziegfeld Theater in 1944.  As with Beethoven, Stravinsky’s work was influenced by goings on in the world – not just musical happenings but world events as well.  The optimism of the piece, more harmonically friendly than most others from this composer, reflects the optimism that existed in the United States during that era.  While hardly Coplandesque, there is a distinctly American flavor to the suite of dance movements.  I doubt Stravinsky would be composing in the same manner if he saw the world as it is today.   Thomas brought clarity and an appropriate sense of dance to the performance. 

Of Prokofiev’s five Piano Concertos, the Second is both the longest and the most demanding: Four sprawling movements, harmonically pungent, truly knuckle-busting in terms of dexterity and stamina required.  The work has grown in popularity over the last few decades, although the contrarian composer seems to have had mixed feelings about it (he advised Horowitz to not bother learning the piece, saying “it has too many notes and I don’t like it myself”).  Like Prokofiev, Daniil Trifonov has gained a reputation as a musician who marches to the beat of his own drummer, and so it was with Saturday’s performance.  Trifonov’s conception of the Concerto was obviously deeply thought-out, and, while not lacking in virtuosity, put musical values first – nothing about this performance was ordinary.  The opening movement, an Andantino-Allegretto was taken at an unusually slow, brooding pace.  Yet I never had the impression that Trifonov was dragging the tempo, and the buildup of tension in the explosive cadenza was thrilling.  The Scherzo was especially Vivace with the parallel figurations executed perfectly.  While the Intermezzo was full of snarling menace, the Finale lunged along at a breakneck tempo.  Despite the speed, Trifonov was able to maintain clarity during the work’s many rapid-fire repeated notes, carefully weight chords, and inventively mixed inner-voices.  Thomas matched the soloist beat for beat, and the orchestra responded with playing that was not merely brilliant, but brilliantly pointed and balanced.  The audience was rewarded with an encore from Trifonov: a movement from Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet.

“Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like Tchaikovsky.” – Vladimir Horowitz

Only the most pedantic and provincial will consider Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony to be anything other than what it is: a bona-fide masterpiece.  Despite the tragic nature of the Pathétique (a mistranslation of Tchaikovsky’s intended “passionate”), there’s no evidence it was reflective of the state of Tchaikovsky’s life at the time of its composition.  He had just returned from a successful tour of the United States, and after years of sniggering from Russia’s intelligentisia about the quality of his compositions (not to mention his personal life), his works were becoming increasingly accepted.  Further, Tchaikovsky was assured that the Russian tradition of composing Romantic music within traditional Classical forms would continue via a young composer who’d greatly impressed him: Sergei Rachmaninoff.  So, while it was once widely believed that Tchaikovsky committed suicide (and one crackpot theory claimed that his suicide was “ordered” by a “court of honor”), the bulk of evidence now indicates that his death, by cholera, was a the result of a tragically reckless moment where the composer disregarded warnings to boil water as a precaution before drinking it.  But the power of the Pathétique Symphony is such that a good performance will leave one thinking that perhaps Tchaikovsky did intend to put himself through days of cholera induced agony before dying.  Thomas’ rendition certainly fit that bill, and I observed several in the audience openly weeping at the work’s conclusion.  In the preceding three movements, Thomas brought an expert sense of pace, phrasing, and balance to each moment and movement.  And, yes, there was a brief burst of applause after the third movement.  (I also noticed that Thomas took a sip of water before the final movement – was it intended as symbolism?)  As I perused the program book before the concert, I was pleased to see that Eric Sellen’s program notes rightly spanked the Putin regime’s oppressive anti-LGBT laws, noting that since they were enacted, new cases of HIV have skyrocketed. 

But for those who’ve read this blog and noted some of my political statements, please remember that I take President Kennedy’s words to heart, and that my criticism is levelled at the Putin regime and his puppets in the United States and elsewhere, not at the people of Russia.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ravel at Severance with Pintscher and Thibaudet

Last night’s all-Ravel program at Severance Hall was further proof to me that not even the finest recordings reproduced on the most expensive sound systems can duplicate the experience of live music in concert.  Daniel and I entered Severance and found the stage was crammed with every instrument the orchestra had to offer, along with seating for the chorus – featured in the evening’s final work.

Ravel wrote a number of works for solo or duo piano, which he later orchestrated.  One such work is the Mother Goose ballet, which began as a suite of five works for piano duet.  (There are two orchestral versions: the complete ballet, and a suite of excerpts.)  Last night, the Cleveland Orchestra presented the 15-minute Suite, under the direction of guest conductor Matthias Pintscher.  (Pintscher also appeared with the orchestra last year, both as guest conductor and composer.)  The Suite was given a mostly tranquil performance, with the delicate harmonies insinuating themselves into the melody and the textures discreetly handled.  But I found myself longing for several sections from the complete ballet, particularly the Dance of the Spinning Wheel.

After the opening work, the Hamburg Steinway was rolled onto the stage for what turned out to be the night’s main event.  Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand was written in 1930 on a commission from Paul Wittgenstein, a German pianist who lost an arm in World War I about a hundred years ago.  (In one of history’s bizarre twists, Wittgenstein’s younger brother, Ludwig, was schoolmates with a young boy named Adolf Hitler.)  Of the various concertos Wittgenstein was able to commission from the composers of the era, including Prokofiev, Britten, and Richard Strauss, Wittgenstein seems to have liked the Ravel the least – and his recording of the work is rather weak.  As for the Concerto itself, it stands as proof of the adage “Art thrives on Limitations.”  The work ranges from a rather sinister opening featuring the contrabassoon, to the majestic fanfare, an almost orgiastic march, and a denouement which mixes elements of all of these.  In terms of structure, orchestration, and exploitation of the piano’s capabilities, the work is a masterpiece – even though certain types may sniff that it’s lacking the “profundity” of Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms.  Last night’s soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, has recorded this concerto with the Montreal Symphony under Charles Dutoit (who was originally scheduled as guest conductor but withdrew in the wake of accusations of sexual impropriety).  Truth be told, Thibaudet's is my favorite recording of this work.  This is the third time I’ve heard Thibaudet live – the previous two times were at Blossom in Liszt’s Totentanz and Grieg’s Piano Concerto.  As with his previous appearances here, there was a concentration in his demeanor, along with a whiplash quality he brought to the performance, which brought a clarity and focus to the performance which is rarely heard in this piece.  It wasn’t merely the technique that dazzled, but the way in which Thibaudet integrated pianistic effects - including glissandi, rapid staccato passage-work, leaps and arpeggios - which in the wrong hands can sound like extraneous note-spinning, into a convincing musical argument.  It was a performance to remember (hampered only by a very rude audience member using her smart-phone to video the first minute of the performance, until an usher scolded her).  Responding to rapturous applause, Thibaudet treated the audience to an encore, a two-handed piano piece which was unfamiliar to me, but sounded like a melding of Liszt’s Liebesträume No. 3 and Brahms’ Lullaby.

Following intermission, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus joined Pintscher and the orchestra for the complete Daphnis & Chloé ballet score.  As with some other ballet scores, including Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Firebird, Daphnis & Chloé loses little with the absence of actual dancers.  Ravel’s gorgeous and inventive orchestration, which includes celeste, glockenspiel, and even a wind machine, was shown to full advantage here.   There is a mythic quality to this score which was brought to the fore, yet Pintscher never let the dance element of the work fall from his grasp.  The complicated wind playing of the Lever du jour was executed flawlessly and with aplomb, yet it was the careful balancing of the various orchestra sections along with the chorus that remains in the mind.  Ravel was a meticulous man, and I left the hall with the sense that he would have approved of the evening’s concert – which combined precision, sensuality, and passion.  

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Andre Tchaikowsky, the complete RCA collection

Sony has issued a small box set dedicated to pianist Andre Tchaikowsky.  Click here for my review.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Murray Perahia's Hammerklavier and Moonlight Sonatas

Deutsche Grammophon has just issued Murray Perahia's new recordings of Beethoven's Hammerklavier and Moonlight Sonatas.  Click here to read my review.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Tiny hands on a Big Button