Mooredale Concerts Finale: Brahms & Kuerti reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

May 1st, 2011

Saturday, April 30, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Anton Kuerti’s 2006 recording of the Brahms Concerto for Piano no 1 in D minor, Op. 15 for Analekta with Joseph Rescigno conducting the Grand Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra is ranked highly among world-class recordings. Kuerti’s playing is exceptional. He is imaginative but never showy; he takes chances but is never wayward. His range of tone and dynamic is wide and there is a sureness to the emotional thrust of his playing.

The piano enters after a very long, tumultuous opening orchestral tutti which is supposed to be a vigorous onslaught. And it was, though the tempo seemed to drag at first. Maestro Marco Parisotto leading the Ontario Philharmonic may have misjudged the acoustics of Koerner Hall, because the sound, particularly of the timpani and brass, seemed mindlessly shattering. Nonetheless, the warmth and intelligence of Kuerti’s playing prevailed, and the first movement ended on a feeling of celebration.

The Adagio worked better with the orchestra keeping behind Kuerti’s sweet, spacey, otherworldly reflectiveness. The winds occasionally overwhelmed the piano, but on the whole contributed some very nice colours to the introspective mood. The Finale was crisp and cohesive. Kuerti’s light-fingered virtuosity was balanced forward in the rollicking soundscape of Brahms’ rondo with its nods to Beethoven and Schumann. The ever-strident brass introduced Kuerti’s masterful cadenza that twisted and turned like a wily fox and led the ensemble in its dash to the victorious finish.

Brahms was 20 something when he wrote the Concerto in D minor. He was in the midst of deep emotion concerning the madness and death of his mentor Schumann and caring for Schumann’s wife Clara and her family. Brahms started his first Symphony in his early 30’s and was well into his 40’s when he completed it, partly because of the burden of expectation from his friends and public that he would be Beethoven’s successor. The Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op. 68 is the product of a great deal of pressure and much deliberation. It was a success. It is also huge, lasting up to 50 minutes.

Maestro Parisotto, to his credit, conducted without a score, radiating musicality in the flow and precision of his gestures. The performance of the orchestra was a mixture of blessings: good timing, some passages of great textural beauty, and some roughness in dynamics. In general the climate of the first movement was limpid and clear. I enjoyed the lyric winds in the third movement, especially the clarinet, as well as the songfulness of the first violin. The opening of the last movement was dramatically executed and progressed in a fully voluminous way and measured pace towards the coda, and the tumultuous applause of a satisfied audience.

Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson and ARC Ensemble @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

April 27th, 2011

Tuesday, April 26, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

There is a life-affirming energy in Brahm’s Trio in A minor for Piano, Clarinet and Cello, Op. 114. Brahms, in his 57th year, had decided never to compose again. By chance, he attended a recital by clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld.  Brahms’ decision to stop creating music was blown away by this performance and, over the next few years, he composed for Mülhfeld this trio, a clarinet quintet, and two clarinet sonatas.

The cello introduces the sombre, arching theme of the Allegro. ARC’s clarinetist Joaquin Valedpeñas paired delightfully this evening with guest cellist Sharon Robinson. As if James Taylor were paired with Janis Joplin, the clarinet answers the cello’s opening gritty, gutty emotion with delicacy—deep, warm and sweet. The clarinet makes elegant work of the recapitulation and the cello joins for a whispered rush to the movement’s end. Dianne Werner took some time toning down the volume of her keyboard and by the middle of the Adagio movement she began fitting in. In this movement, clarinet matched rather than mollified the cello’s emotion, a feeling that developed into a kind of love-story line by the third movement, and finished as a dark dance in the forceful Allegro finale.

The most exciting composition of the evening was the Suite for Two Violins, Cello and Piano Left Hand, Op. 23 by Erich Korngold. The Prelude and Fugue opens with a discordant cadenza for solo piano dramatically played by ARC’s David Louie. The anxious, chromatic melodies of the fugue voiced by the three strings create an eerie impression that rises to rapture in piano trills, lapses into silence, rolls out in the lower registers of Bryan Epperson’s cello, and resolves in deep piano chords punctuated by cello pizzicatos. Eric Raum and Marie Bérard have a lovely high-toned violin conversation before the cello brings the movement to a fully committed emotional close.

The Waltz is spooky, mixing the atmospheres of Vienna with a sinister, tango-laden Argentinian brothel. The Grotesque (3rd movement) is percussive, abrupt, jerky and obviously fun for the musicians. The piano ushers in a creepy mood, the strings follow, the mood turns sentimental in a piano solo that opens into a wide screen movie score by the whole ensemble that concludes in a rousing climax. The fourth movement is a song that has a Mozartian loveliness touched by the rich tones of a of a Mahler soundscape. The Rondo-Finale gallops away like a horse opera, reminding us that Korngold made his living writing some of the best scores Hollywood ever heard.

The featured Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio came onstage after intermission for Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47, joined by ARC violist Steven Dann. The members of the K-L-R Trio have been together for 35 years, and it did not take long to hear their smooth drive taking every turn of the Schumann perfectly. The Introduction—a delicate tutti—ignited quietly like a Rolls Royce. The pianist Kalickstein rolled out a rhythmically incisive second repetition of the opening theme, but was meticulous in keeping his keyboard in sonic balance a bit below the string tone. Steven Dann’s viola fit in seamlessly until after the midpoint of the Andante Cantabile third movement, where it sings the original melody nicely solo and in concert with the cello. The viola also features strongly in the fugue of the exuberant Finale. The cello and piano  introduce an intricate staccato line that moves Schumann’s final chamber work and a life-affirming musical evening, in a contrapuntal flow towards a climactic finish.

ARC is the acronym for Artists of the Royal Conservatory

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Opera Atelier: La Clemenza Di Tito reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

April 23rd, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011. The Elgin Theatre, Toronto.

“Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden.”  Sir Philip Sidney

If you found out that your best friend and the woman who expected to be your bride had became lovers and brazenly plotted to assassinate you, naturally you would want them caught and punished. But in Mozart’s golden (and final) opera, the plotters confess, are pardoned, and you thank them for helping you to rise above your instincts. Imagine!

Opera Atelier’s co-artistic directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette  Lajeunesse Zingg did imagine a production that delivers a world of pure golden delight. Their players have amazing voices, are good looking, gorgeously costumed, enchantingly set, lit, and ornamented by a ravishing corps de ballet. It goes without saying there’s nothing wrong with Mozart’s music, and for a baroque ensemble and chorus, Tafelmusik, conducted by David Fallis can’t be beat. Given all this gloriousness, one can also see at a glance that it is the directorial vision that galvanizes all these excellent-in-themselves elements into the exciting experience of a work that has rarely been staged in the past 150 years.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1969 production for the Cologne Opera, began the restoration of La Clemenza’s reputation, and Christopher Alden’s 2009 production for the Chicago Opera Theater conducted by Jane Glover kick-started a reassessment of this supposedly fizzed out, two-dimensional “opera-seria.” The Opera Atelier directors took the risk of producing this long-shot, and found their saving grace in Racine’s Berenice, where the characters come to life because they face and accept the flow that follows a difficult decision rather than escaping disappointment by dying. Instead of taking the brittle positions passions corner them in when events turn, the characters turn with events, accepting the demands of changing circumstances, forgiving each other’s weaknesses.

Of course, it still seems a bit absurd that Tito would propose marriage to three women in one day, and that none of the fatal miscalculations of the disappointed parties are punished. But somehow, the tremendous style that unifies every detail of what happens on stage, and how it flows with the music, releases any pent-up absurdity the audience might feel in a catharsis of enjoyment.

Measha Brueggergosman as Vitellia, the twice-spurned empress-candidate is a feral presence on the stage as she unleashes the force of her jealous ambition on Sesto, her all-too-willing instrument. Her part in the trio “Vengo, aspettate” is magnificently three-dimensional as her voice and demeanour radiate confusion and horror that Publius and Annius are able to misinterpret as excited happiness over the news that Tito has finally chosen her as Empress. On a simpler level, the duet “Ah perdona al primo affetto” in which Servillio and Annio affirm their tie of love in defiance of Tito’s matrimonial interest in Servillio is the first of several lyric joys as  the trousered Mireille Lebel blends her stalwart mezzo with Mireille Asselin’s sweet soprano.

Michael Maniaci as Sesto is electrifying. His “Parto, ma tu ben mio” and “Deh per questo istante solo” are deeply moving. His male soprano seems to rise to the top of any scene he is in, and his movements as an actor are sharply compelling, if a bit tightly wound. Kresimir Spicer and Curtis Sullivan respectively, as Tito and the courtier Publius, are both in fine voice, blending much needed male tones into the predominantly soprano texture of the soundstage. Spicer’s “Se all’impero, amici Dei” is richly drawn.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Choir keep the magic of Mozart’s music flowing like a river on which the voices float. Peter Shackleton’s clarinet obbligato transports us to the exquisite pleasures of the Concerto and the Quintet for Clarinet. John Aberger’s oboe obligato is another bonus passage. At any and all points, the elegant patterned movements of the dancers are a bonus. Speaking of movements, the one fault I find in the direction is that it all-too-often sends the lead characters crashing full-tilt into the side pillars.

If, as they say, opera seria is an acquired taste, Opera Atelier’s production of Mozart’s Clemenza would be the place to acquire it. It runs to May 1. Click here for times and tickets.

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Tokyo String Quartet finish their Beethoven Cycle reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

April 15th, 2011

Thursday, March 14, 2011. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

“Whoever has built a new Heaven has found the strength for it only in his own Hell.” Friedrick Neitzsche”.

Beethoven composed his last three string quartets within a few years of his death from prolonged, painful, multiple organ dysfunctions due to poisoning by the lead additives in the wine he habitually drank.  These quartets are the music Beethoven wrestled from the grip of his Final Angel. Where other ensembles bring out the drama of Beethoven’s defiance as he meets the inexorable gaze of fate, the Tokyo String Quartet create an effect like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, where rich feeling radiates from the depths of an enigma so at peace with itself that it can show a smile.

The A minor, Op. 132 (July, 1825) sings at its core in an archaic hymnal mode giving thanks for new strength after the recent bout of illness Beethoven had endured; but the song of thanks also intones a profound, somewhat mournful resignation. Part of the enigma of this work is the constant start-and-stop alternation of happy and sad, quick and slow, flowing and staccato, solemn and dance-like, soft and loud. It’s as if whatever feeling absorbs Beethoven in one moment calls up out of the depths its opposite, be it harmonious or dissonant. A low register drone like bagpipes evokes in the first violin a high pitched passage that sounds like “Chopsticks.”

Another part of the enigma is a sense that the music “teases us out of thought.” We are reminded of the music of the future. One hears passages whose figurations bring to mind music of later Romantic composers, be it Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rachmaninoff, Copeland or Gershwin:as if Beethoven had found the musical archetypes, a musical table of elements, for states of mind that have persisted to this day. Since I don’t recall noticing this effect until this performance by the Tokyo String Quartet, I have to allow that it is a reflection of the distinctive polish of their playing.

The C Sharp Minor, Op. 131 (July, 1826) in seven movements, may be ‘the greatest quartet ever written’.  It was composed during the time that the composer’s nephew Karl, whom he regarded as a son, attempted suicide, and whom Beethoven saved by getting Karl accepted in a patron’s regiment.  It opens with a fugue that looks back to Bach. The four parts of the fugue are based on a melody in which one can hear “The still, sad music of humanity”. A fast movement follows powered by the flying fingers of Martin Beaver on the first violin and Clive Greensmith’s cello plucked pizzicato like heartstrings. The flow is often agitated but the spirit of this movement is  warm with Beethoven’s sense of freedom to do as he likes.

Richard Wagner referred the central andante—‘theme and variations’—as the “incarnation of innocence.” The theme is simple, the scoring is uncannily skillful. Kikuei Ikeda’s second violin’s support of Beaver’s melodic phrases are subtle, while the first violin remains silent during Ikeda’s melodic turns . Kazuhide Isomura’s viola creates a fine contrast of long notes against the cello’s air-spaced pizzicati, and their double-stopped duets that follow are especially fine. The Tokyo give this movement an organ-toned, smooth, melting, texture shot through with the skylarkings of sonic highlights.

A playful presto followed by a mournful adagio brings on the martial finale that, again in the words of Wagner, “is the fury of the world’s dance…and above the tumult, the indomitable fiddler whirls us to the abyss.” The Tokyo abandon themselves to a craziness that dances with lamentation and prayer.

Beethoven’s last complete work for string quartet, the F major, Op. 135 returns to an earlier style of composing. It is in the conventional four movements and is quite short—in Beethoven’s own words, “a circumcised quartet.” Though his health was precarious, and he was very short of cash, the work is cheerful in a Haydnesque way. In the score of the finale, Beethoven inscribes the idea around which his work last work revolves: “Must it be? It must be.” The movement begins with a question posed with slow, sad music: the music of the final answer is ‘glittering and gay.’

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s Beethoven’s 9th reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

April 8th, 2011

Thursday, April 7, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

What a win Tafelmusik racked up last night with their debut performance of Beethoven’s 9th! The hum of the closing chords from the Baroque Orchestra, Choir and soloists, still hung in the air as the audience roared to its feet: it was like the Leafs had taken the Stanley Cup.

Setting aside partisan politics of period-instrument vs. modern orchestra, if you could hear Jean Lamon’s violin introducing the opening theme with the clarity of birdsong in spring, and hear the orchestra follow with a dynamic surge that brings to mind the chthonic earth energy of Stravinky’s Rite of Spring, well, to mix metaphors, you’d know you were at a feast of Beethoven and in for a whole new palate of flavours.

The timpani is pointed and explosive. The flute comes to prominence as a silver thread. The architecture is cleanly articulated, builds less as flow and more as percussive steps showing Beethoven rooted in the Classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart. The parts of the orchestra come sharply to prominence with crisp edges while the orchestra as a whole navigates the dynamic hairpins of the score on eight cylinders and manages to maintain just the right momentum.

At some point one notices that maestro Bruno Weil never moves his feet. He keeps them at shoulder width, supporting his weight and that of the whole orchestra from a martial-arts stance that seems grounded deep in the earth. Despite the vibrato-less strings, the adagio creates a sublime feeling of repose that is beyond gorgeous. The choral singing is excellent, the solo work by Sigrid Plundrich, Anita Krause, Rufus Müller and Christòpheren Nomura was impressive and  well balanced with the instruments. The finale with its powerfully phrased trombone episode has a right sense of grandeur. The concluding choral apotheosis recalls the earth-energy explosion that ushered in the first movement, but here the choral element, the instruments with human faces, move one towards the life-affirming celebration of Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Tafelmusik Chamber Choir directed by Ivars Taurins performed a cappella for the first half of the program. Their sound exhibits the finely-grained textures and articulated wave patterns that you find under the silken finish of old italian violins. I don’t know how it happens that their Mendelssohn’s Ehre sie Gott in der Höhe (1846) brought to mind the energy of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire?” The Missa canonica, WoO 18 (1856/7) by Brahms created a gentle, psychedelic radiance. Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis (2001) is a chromatic arrangement of cubistically narrowed, flattened tones with some luminous soprano parts. The excellence of the Choir tuned the audience up to the right pitch to begin receiving the Full Beethoven.

Tafelmusik performances of this program continue at Koerner Hall through to the matinee on Sunday, April, 10. All performances are currently sold out.  Let’s wait for the CD.

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Les AMIS’ “LOVE”:Lynn Kuo & Marianna Humetska reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

April 6th, 2011

Tuesday, April 5, 2011. Gallery 345, Toronto.

Mozart’s Six Variations in G minor on ‘Hélas, j’ai perdu mon amant’, K. 360 is the song of a ‘jiltee’. The melody, borrowed from a French source, is a little obsessive, like the refrain from “The Miller of Dee” ( ‘I care for nobody, not I, and nobody cares for me.’), and Mozart’s brokenhearted variations replay themselves in the mind long after the instruments are silent. Mlles. Kuo and Humetska begin by dragging the tempo a bit, but by the 5th variation, tempo and touch on the piano are nice, and the violin part is flowing.

César Franck’s only violin sonata (in A major)—1886—makes considerable demands on both violinist and pianist as the composer takes the cyclic theme from moods of dreamy, floaty fantasy through a lot of stormy weather, towards a sweet and saucy, sexy conclusion. I liked Humetska’s rolling storms and Kuo’s total commitment to the music as she builds towards the Allegretto Poco Mosso’s final climax. That Franck gave his sonata to the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaye as a wedding gift makes humorous sense.

Nino Rota (famous on this side of the Atlantic for the Godfather film music) is said to have based his Improvviso in re minore on the story of a brutal murder. Staccato and glissando passages, tipsy, gypsy, crazy rhythms suggest a mind sliding off the edge of sanity into the madness of love. Astor Piazzolla’s brief (3:40) Milonga en re that followed shifts the mood to the smooth and sensuous moves of the tango. Humetska’s intonation and touch progress ‘ostinato’ at a tangent to the story the violin is telling, making the scene like a dimly lit street rolling out behind a pair of lovers, arm-in-arm, strolling home.

I never expected a made-in-Russia arrangement of Gershwin melodies to raise the roof in a classical concert, but that’s what happened. Igor Frolov’s (b.1937) Concert Fantasy on Themes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Op. 19, for violin and piano,(1991) seemed to free the duo from their classical corsets and got the joint jumping. Maybe it was Lynn Kuo’s banjo sounding pizzicato on “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing,” or Marianna’s bluesy “Summertime” riffs that made this part of the concert take off into the blue. But there it went. Or maybe it was the complete relaxation into love of “Porgy, I’s yo’ woman now.” That too. Whatever the cause of the elation that came into the room towards the end of last night’s concert, here’s a quote from Nino Rota to go out on:”I’d do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That’s what’s at the heart of my music.”

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