Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Pintscher and Tiberghien at Severance

Vladimir Horowitz once said, “Good composers or bad composers, the best pianists were all composers.”  To a great extent this is true (at least prior to today's era, when pianists are trained to win competitions, like racehorses wearing blinders): Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff – all were as famous as pianists in their day as composers.  Even Horowitz dipped his toes into composing before fate compelled him to turn to performing as his bread & butter. 

Whether Horowitz’s aphorism applies to conductors is open to debate.  Several composers were, in their time, also known as conductors: Mahler, Rachmaninoff - who was offered music directorship of the Boston Symphony, and Boulez - who was so associated with Cleveland for much of his life.  But the vast majority of conductors have never composed – at least professionally.

Matthias Pintscher was guess conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for this past weekend’s concerts at Severance Hall.  He began the concert with his own composition: Ex Nihilo, which roughly translates as Out of Nothing.  The work primarily concentrated on texture and crescendo for its depiction of a transition from darkness to light.  As a conductor, Pintscer has a clear beat, but uses his left hand more for theatrical gestures than for controlling details within the orchestra.  Incidentally, he did not use a baton for his own piece but did for the remaining works.

Following a brief pause, during which the Hamburg Steinway was rolled into place, pianist Cédric Tiberghien mounted the stage for Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, popularly known as the “Egyptian”.  The source of the nick-name is that the work was mostly composed in Egypt, and that the second movement makes use of some exotic modes and scales that are associated with Middle-Eastern music.  The concerto is primarily lyrical, although the finale has moments of virtuosity.  Tiberghien offered a performance that was technically immaculate, musically poised, and beautifully colored – particularly in the central movement.  The crisp and almost cool virtuosity of the finale brought the house down and the audience’s response was rewarded with an encore, Debussy’s The Submerged Cathedral – appropriately enough as the second half of the concert would feature another “water piece” by a French composer.  Tiberghien’s weighting of chords and use of the pedal were exquisite.

Following intermission, Pintscher returned to lead the orchestra in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2.  The work is a bit more accessible than his fully atonal works, but often the tonal center is difficult to discern.  Pintscher led the work with a clear sense of direction.


I’ve been familiar with Debussy’s La Mer for about a quarter century, but this concert marked the first time I’ve heard it live.  Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I found myself curiously let down by aspects of the performance. Instead of seductive textures and transparent voicing, I heard a rendition which was garish and – pardon the pun – splashy.  Further, Pintscher’s frequent tempo changes disrupted the work’s continuity, as heard in recordings by Maazel and Boulez, among modern versions.  Nevertheless, the performance had its moments, including Peter Otto’s lovely violin solo in the first movement and beautiful work by the harpists -  and the generally spectacular playing brought the audience to its feet.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Ladies’ Night at Severance

At the risk of sounding sexist, this past Saturday’s Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall could have been referred to as Ladies’ night.

Chinese born conductor Xian Zhang substituted for Semyon Bychkov, who was ill with stomach flu. Zhang is a rarity in the classical world: a female conductor.  The relative scarcity of female conductors is the only reason I point it out.  Zhang was joined by the Labeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, for the concert’s opening work, Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major, K.365.  (I remember back in the 1980s, The Music Box at Shaker Square, where I worked, did a brisk business in Labeque sisters CDs.)  It’s generally believed that Mozart composed the work to perform with his sister, Nannerl, so it’s entirely appropriate that the work was performed by two siblings at Severance.  Piano duos are probably among the most challenging collaborative performances: the pianists are usually separated by about twelve feet, can’t see each other’s hands, and must depend on the conductor and that thing called instinct to maintain coordination and continuity.  This is in marked contrast to works for piano and strings, where the pianist can observe the bow movements to determine entry points and the like.  The Labeque sisters were entirely in tune with each other and the conductor to deliver a sparkling performance, with a lovely sense of songful intimacy in the slow movement – coupled with feathery figurations from the strings.  They were rewarded by a standing ovation, and returned the gesture with an encore, the finale from Phillip Glass’ Four Movements for two pianos.


Following intermission, Zhang mounted the rostrum for Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. The work, composed with some difficulty in 1885, is not often performed.  Like Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the work has a programmatic nature, based on Byron’s poem of the same name.  About an hour long, this is the longest of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and provided a chance for the orchestra to really show its stuff, not just collectively but individual players – in particular the percussion.  The work also has a brief organ passage at the end – about two minutes of music which is the definition of an easy paycheck. As my view of Zhang had been blocked by the piano lid during the Mozart, this provided me an opportunity to view her in action.  Her baton technique was of the no-nonsense school personified by Toscanini and Szell: her beat was clear, cues were properly given, and her left hand adeptly controlled dynamics and balance.  This was reflected in a rendition which was coherent (this is not an easy piece to hold together), clear, and beautifully played.  I look forward to hearing more from her.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Spencer Myer plays Bolcom

The Steinway & Sons label has released a new recording of Spencer Myer performing Bolcom Rags.  Click here to read my review.