Archive for February, 2007

STEPHEN HOUGH review by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Music Toronto Presents
Stephen Hough, pianist
Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

The effect of Stephen Hough’s performance brings to mind one of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”: ENOUGH OR TOO MUCH.

Taut as a cable Hough sits erect and still at the keyboard, his hands flat, elbows tucked in: the music flows out of his fingers commanding attention to the power, the precision and the finely nuanced feeling of it.

Mendelssohn’s 18 part “Variations serieuses, Op. 54” is rendered in high contrast: delicate right-hand melodies dance above formal Bachian progressions; melodies sparkle like sunlight on water dividing above the dark chiaroscuro stones of a mountain brook; chromatic suspended harmonies rush as if chased through a thundering gorge and resolve into a pool of tranquil reflection and peace.

The opening twelve-tone series of Anton Webern’s “Variations, Op. 27” are hesitant half-sounded notes, demi-phrases suspended like the footsteps of a paranoid dwarf tiptoeing into the darkness of an unfamiliar cave. By the third movement, Hough has moved us into a jazzy, bluesy, cool, spare, private, intimate space suspended in time.
Hough’s performance of Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata in C Minor, Op.111” left no room to doubt his sincerity: he was taking no prisoners. The first movement is tragic in tone. At Beethoven’s thunderous forge, the first three-note theme is heated, hammered and articulated into a protean sequence of shapes. The second movement modulates to C Major. Though tranquil and reflective, the high register, somewhat dissonant melodies, often rippling over high register trills, seem to be played directly on the nerves. The effect is hypnotic, entrancing. Hough uttered the concluding pianissimo chord and with his posture held a long silence that no one dared to intrude on with applause, until he gave a sign.

The programme after intemission lightened up the mood with a selection of waltzes by von Weber, Chopin, Saint-Saens, Chabrier, Debussy, and Liszt. Oddly, I found Hough’s treatment of this salon music, especially the Chopin, a bit forceful. With Chabrier’s “Feuillet d’album” , the tenderness of mood of the subject and the ambiguous playing created a pleasing effect. Hough updated Debussy’s wry “La plus que lente” well as a kind of cool, urbane cocktail piano piece with touches of Gershwin, Rachmaninoff and Cole Porter.

With this part of the programme, we were invited to enjoy Stephen Hough, the entertainer. Wittily, he concludes his programme with a piece by Liszt depicting the “diabolically virtuoso playing of Mephistopheles” entertaining a village crowd while Faust seduces a maiden. A ‘diabolically’ charming coincidence in a review of this extraordinary performance introduced about by a proverb from Hell: ENOUGH OR TOO MUCH.

The audience demanded and got three encores.

In the lobby a parting patron gave Stephen Hough this tribute:

“He’s one slick dude in his green metallic shoes.”

MUSIC FROM BEIJING review by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

Friday, February 16, 2007
Glenn Gould Studio
New Music Concerts Present
MUSIC FROM BEIJING

Guest Artist Wei-Wei Lan, pipa

Above his bath, The Emperor of China inscribed the characters MAKE IT NEW.

A great performance of familiar music makes it new. A great performance of unfamiliar music carries it alive into the heart where the music seems somehow familiar, “ almost a remembrance”. So it was at the Glenn Gould Theatre last night where Robert Aitken presented 6 new compositions by Chinese composers, performed by pipa virtuoso wei-Wei Lan and the amazing New Music Concerts ensemble. The fusion was seamless, delightful and joyous, the perfect emblem of a new year.

“The Simulacrum of a Broken Timbre” (2003) for pipa and percussion quartet by Gouping Jia is made of basic, traditional musical materials redeveloped to form ‘ a new musical sonority.’ Beautifully conducted by maestro Aitken, the opening sonorities are the whine of finger on water glass rim, ripple of gong, metallic scraping of finger-picks on pipa strings, and an eloquence of percussion. These rise, suspend like a held breath, and subside again like the expiration of a mechanical dragon. This piece is just good new music, albeit made in China.

Wei-Wei Lan’s solo performance of “Six War Horses of the Emperor” (2001) by Liu De-hai recalls to these ears a fiery Spanish gypsy flamenco ornamented with ostinato bass lines and continuous fist-rolls, with some moods lighter like Celtic dances and renaissance lute song. The effect on the body is to hold the breathing spellbound in cycles of gentle release.

Shi Fuhong’s karma has brought her to study with Gary Kulesha in Toronto and to the commissioning of “Lightenings” that received its world premiere last night. Based on a poem by Seamus Heaney and structured on the 30th hexagram of the I Ching-“Radiance”, this composition depicts the world’s striving for light and love. It is richly orchestrated for the NMC winds and strings, piano, organ and 4 percussionists ensconced in a pandemonium of drums, bells, chimes, gongs and sonic marvels.

One hears at the beginning Robert Aitken conducting a silence from which emerge some haunted house effects. These rise to a pandemonium that’s soothed by harp and chimes of heaven into a swelling choir of voices that merge into clatter of castanets sounding like gravel cast up onto a naked strand. The four movements include sonorities I would describe as a fever of drums, a touch of ragtime horn, a heart attack machine, a flow of flute and strings thickly textured with gongs and Peter Pavlovsky’s deeply bowed bass, all fading to transparency, evanescence, and space.

Ovation after ovation and intermission.

The most ‘Modern’ and ‘Western’ piece of the evening was Tang Jianping’s composition for pipa and ensemble entitled “Sketch of Plants” (2006), premiered here with the composer in attendance. This well constructed, harmonious work redolent of the propulsive rhythms of Stravinsky and Debussyesque strummings, sighs and ripples, is orchestrated like a concerto around the pipa.

The final composition, “Concertino” (1997) for pipa and ensemble by Guo Wenjing also had a ‘modern’ flavour recalling the urbanity of Poulenc’s early chamber music, especially in the oboe parts. One also hears the later Dadaist connection in the serial rows of pure sonorities that explore pitches, textures and rhythms to the point of crazy onomatopoeic shrieks and cries of excitement or distress. Wei-Wei Lan plays here with great feeling and the piece ends in an explosion of sound that leaves the players as if frozen in time.

Wei-Wei Lan also performed some traditional pieces of exquisite feeling whose beauties were instantly apparent to even these ignorant ears. On the whole, one feels as if a world of music has been newly made and opened for exploration by this Music from Beijing. The prospect, like the concert, is exhilarating.

FINE ARTS QUARTET review by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, February 10th, 2007


Thursday, February 8
Music Toronto presents
FINE ARTS QUARTET
Jane Mallett Theatre

Their tone is warm, rich, colourful, bringing out the glow behind the sparkle of Mozart’s “String Quartet in B-flat, K.458 (“The Hunt”). Wolfgang Laufer’s cello during the first movement’s exposition is slower than I remember versions by the Quartetto Italiano and Arthur Grimaud, with a mood of melancholy flowing around the hoppy hunt rhythms, suggesting romance more than the excitement of the hunt.

One begins to listen with new ears, recalling that Mozart is more contemporary to the early Romantics like Herder, Blake and Ossian (McPherson) than he is to Haydn, the dedicatee of this piece. In Mozart’s music, from this listening, one can hear more wave forms than Olympian structures.

Normally, the leap in contrast from Mozart to Shostakovich would be daunting, but not in this case. The firmness of the Quartet’s tone is scrawled like a signature across both pieces. This F-Minor composition, in seven, short, linked movements, is introduced by Efim Boico’s violin solo and the other instruments join in like thick daubs of a palette-knife in a Franz Kline painting. The lyric melody of Ralph Evans’ violin introduces a querulous note that is picked up by Yuri Gandelman’s viola and somehow infects the chorus with a sense of questioning.

One has the sense of Mother Russia and her suffering peoples being urged on by several independent, individual voices that are not so much saying something but rather are making intelligible sounds.

Mendelssohn’s “Quartet in D, Op.44 No.1″, a youthful work from the composer’s happiest days of success in love, marriage and career, comes across as a more dynamic kind of music than one would expect, with a poetic undertone that hints at emotions deeper than gaiety and well-being. There is a heightened sense of drama in he exquisitely lyrical pizzicato cello of the third movement that modulates into a drone as the movement finishes to the pizzicato plucking of the other strings.

Without question, The Fine Arts Quartet has something that touches the imagination, as if they were possessed of a Keatsian “Negative Capability” that allows them to put off who they are and to give expression to the music as it is.

AMICI CHAMBER ENSEMBLE reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

Friday, January 19, 2007 8 pm

AMICI presents

A BRAHMS REPAST

Glenn Gould Studio, 250 Front St West

The gentle, lyrical, “Sonata in A Major Op. 100″, for violin composed by Brahms in a pastoral setting, is presented here transcribed for clarinet, the instrument that so attracted the composer during the autumn of his life. This work is remarkable for its economical lyricism.

Over Patricia Parr’s angular piano work, the clarinet of Joaquin Valdepenas glides like a shadow over the stones of a terraced garden, creating a mood that contemplates the passage of time wistfully but without regret.

Piano and clarinet enter the scherzo almost simultaneously, mirroring each other’s quick stepping of a Hungarian folk dance. The third movement is episodic: the instruments dialogue, embellishing each other, or the piano rolls like a landscape backgrounding the pleasant tale being told by the clarinet.

Then, David Hetherington, pictured here, came to the microphone and asked, “Is there a violinist in the house?”
Yonathan Berick’s violin had been accidentally disabled. An eminent violinist in the audience happened to know of one located nearby, probably a 1779 “Salabue” Guadagnini.

Berick restored, played together with Hetherington on cello Gary Kulesha’s “Pro et Contra” (1995)– a work full of spiky, angular, jazz inflected rhythms, intended to portray the unsettled turmoil of our present high contrast way of life. Lyrical violin and abrasive cello deliberately uttered sour harmonies, weird slithering glissandos, arco and pizzicato arguments, nervous freaked out sonorities, before concluding their dialogue in the mode of matrimonial bickering as conversation. A good natured wakeful piece.

The ‘Adagio’ from Brahms’ “Trio in A Minor Op. 114″, a magnificent, fluidly built, contemplative work was dedicated to the memory of the late friend of AMICI, Eugene Rittich, sometime principle horn of the TSO. The natural voice of the clarinet blends with deep richness of cello, and piano lovingly caressed into a finale that closes like the valve of a heart leaving a silence undisturbed by applause that is the epitaph for the departed friend.

The main course of the Brahms Repast was the “Trio in E flat Major, Op.40″, with the current principle horn player of the TSO Neil Deland. This is a work of sustained intensity, played, as Brahms wrote it, with any self investment, free of strain to reach a conclusion. The parts are rounded, the tempi as close to the human pulse as possible. Apart from moments in the first movement when it seemed the horn drowned out the voice of the violin, the treatment was subtle and penetrating.

Patricia Parr’s piano, whether quick or moody, kept the performance in focus and restrained a slight tendency toward Mahlerization. Berwick’s violin, particularly in the melancholy ‘Adagio’ made some delicious harmonies in unison with the horn an octave below.

The audience burst into applause when the piece ended, in equal appreciation of the music and the humanity of the evening, the sense of continuity and community vividly in evidence among the musicians and friends of AMICI. www.amiciensemble.com