Monday, February 8, 2016

A Double Concert Weekend

Truly, Daniel and I are lucky to live in an area that values fine culture.  This past weekend, we enjoyed two concerts in University Circle.

First was the Cleveland Orchestra’s program of French music, under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

We arrived at Severance Hall early enough to enjoy a pre-concert lecture by Eric Charnofsky, who provided useful insight into the evening’s program – particularly Delbavie’s La Source d’un Regard – composed within the past decade.  The work takes its inspirations from the overtones of individual notes, which I was able to recognize from my years as a piano tuner.  A sense of stillness pervades the piece, almost suspended animation, as the audience is left to contemplate the lingering tones. 

There was a brief pause as the orchestra’s chairs were rearranged and the American Steinway brought onstage for the next work, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.  From the first note, it was clear that Bavouzet knew the work inside & out, was completely “in the zone” and communicated a sense of joy in performance that one hears all too seldom.  He even leaned to his left and encouraged orchestral players in certain passages.  It was a thrilling performance that could rank alongside the best recordings of the piece, and received a hearty ovation.   After the second curtain call, Bavouzet strode on stage with a score in his hands, made a brief comment about the late Pierre Boulez, and played two of his Notations as a tribute.

The second half was devoted to the three books of Debussy’s Images, presented out of sequence with Book II placed last so the concert could end with a bang.  Jurowski paid careful attention to coloristic details of each piece, but never allowed them to come at the expense of each work’s structure.  It has been said that, though French, Debussy’s Iberia is some of the greatest Spanish music ever written.  I concur.

Throughout the concert, Jurowski’s fastidious, detail oriented conducting left nothing to chance.  He’s clearly a master of baton technique, but never used it to show off for the audience.  Jurowski was also generous, following each work, in singling out members of the orchestra for special mention.  I would like to hear him in more varied repertoire to gain a more informed opinion, but if it’s on the level of what I witnessed Saturday night, the orchestra should consider engaging Jurowski more frequently.

As is often the case these days, it was pleasing to see a healthy percentage of young people at the concert.  Indeed, I saw more Millennials there than I did of my own generation.


Zsolt Bognár’s recital on Sunday was a welcome distraction for those of us who’ve no interest in being inundated with all things Super Bowl.  Judging by the near capacity crowd at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium, Daniel & I were hardly alone in this respect.  Bognár’s recital was centered on musical journeys, and he took the audience on a welcome journey away from the mundane toward the extraordinary.  After walking onstage, Bognár advised the audience that he was battling laryngitis caught during a recent trip to the Philippines, and apologized in advance for any coughing he might do during the recital. 

As it happened, the first work, Schubert’s Impromptu in A-flat major, D. 935, No. 2, was the only work in which Bognár coughed during performance – and it didn’t even break the musical line.  Bognar’s determination reminded me of Arthur Rubinstein, who almost never cancelled concerts during his over 70 year career – and explained that once he began playing, any symptoms of illness would subside until the concert was over.   Schubert's three Klavierstücke (D. 946) have not attained the popularity of the two earlier sets of Impromptus.  Bognár gave the first work, in E-flat minor, a sense of urgency which contrasted well with the central section B major – at the same time, principle and subordinate lines were deftly balanced so the more challenging sections were more than a mere jumble of notes. The second piece, in E-flat major, was given a spacious interpretation; darker toned with disturbing bass accents during the A-flat minor trio. The Allegro of the third work was played with more brio than in his recording, with the central trio boldly contrasted.

Following intermission there was a selection of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, including Butterflies – my favorite – which was offered with an appropriately ethereal quality.

Then it was to Liszt, by way of Schubert-Liszt.  Bognár's treatment of 
Der Doppelgänger, a work that harkens toward Liszt's Il Penseroso, was a chilling amalgam of stillness and motion.

Dante Sonata is a work I've heard pounded and hacked through so much that I've almost come to dread it. Alternately, some have tried to make the work more profound than it is and have turned it into something terminally boring. Bognár brought gravitas, without pretense or portent, to the more lyrical sections, while bringing ample virtuosity to the more extroverted sections. Bognár, rare for today's pianists, seems highly attentive to tonal quality: his fortes, although loud enough to engulf Gartner Auditorium, were never harsh; his pianissimos were clearly audible. There was a sense of rise & fall to the phrasing that coincided to the structure of the piece, so it built to the climax rather than rushing forth.  The audience was brought to its feet and rewarded with two encores: Arvo Pärt’s Fur Alina, and Schumann’s Arabeske.   

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