Archive for October, 2008

Keller String Quartet @ Music Toronto

Friday, October 31st, 2008

Thursday, October 30,2008, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

The Keller String Quartet from Budapest asked the audience to hold their applause until after they had played all four compositions of the first half of their concert at Music Toronto. In this way, they fashioned the classic legacy of Bach, Haydn and Mozart into a setting for the newly classic music of their countryman and mentor, Gyorgy Kurtag.

The first piece we held our applause for was five fugues from Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” transcribed and arranged for four voices by Mozart (K.405) in 1781, six months after Haydn published the string quartets of his revolutionary Op. 33.

What Mozart had learned from transcribing Bach was how to use the colours and registration of the cello, violins and viola to distinguish separate voices and their interplay. What Mozart learned from Haydn was to how to write string quartets that give independence and equal standing to all four instruments, and to allow development of motifs throughout the whole work. These learnings were reflected in Mozart’s three great symphonies, 39,40 and 14, and in  “Adagio and Fugue”(K.546), the second Mozart composition we were asked not to applaud.

All of these learnings were manifested in a masterly way by this string quartet. The Kellers established, individuated and blended their voices by performing the Bach altered and updated by Mozart. Then these same Keller voices  segued into the first Kurtag composition, “Oficium Breve, Op. 28”, (1988-89). The continuity of voices and the characteristic intensity of the Keller’s style bridged the 300 year gap between compositions and allowed the Kurtag to sound a lot like the Bach/Mozart somewhat deconstructed.

Kurtag is a miniaturist: many of the fifteen movements of this allusive requiem are a slightly more or less than a minute long. The utterances are slow, quiet, sometimes whispering, sometimes grating, often discordant, sometimes harmonious, always suspended in pregnant spaces. Some of the later movements develop Bartokian themes that sway in fugal dialogue like waves breaking on a shore, or rise in jagged flights like lines of bees hunting. It is as if, to paraphrase Paul Griffiths, Kurtag’s world of feeling starts with nothing, opens with a few quick strokes and finds its way to something utterly simple, utterly trustworthy.

From there to Mozart’s “Adagio and Fugue”, it is as if the sounds the Keller had been making in Kurtag’s fragments became connected into a dark, dramatic, richly textured fugal space of bold, solid and articulated strokes. Then, out of the Mozart came the assertive, rhythmic polyphonic energies of Kurtag’s “Six Moments Musicaux, Op. 44” (2005). This work is also subtly elegiac, but playful as well, in which the players exhibit an astonishing display of timing, vehemence and control. The piece releases sweetly into space and energy, and the audience let go the pent-up applause for what seemed like a single, extended work.
After intermission, the Keller retook traditional ground and treated the audience to pure pleasure: Schubert’s fifteenth and final string quartet in G, D 887. One could hear in this music a fear and trembling, a relentless anxiety, a hectic flush of energy that the Keller articulate forcefully. In particular, I applaud the cello of Judit Szabo in the first theme of the opening allegro for being without sentiment but still heartbreaking. Her cello also dominates the second movement and figures prominently in the Scherzo and Finale. One wonders why she has not become one of the greatest stars of the concert stage.

As if against the hectic deathward push of his diseased flesh, Schubert interposes in all movements passages of surpassing gentleness and cheer. The music of the Finale contains an impudent, carefree tarantella that recalls to mind Mozart and the happy shenanigans of Figaro. The strength of Schubert flows through this trustworthy quartet in a triumph of music making.

Prize-Winners Play Music in the Afternoon reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, October 24th, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008, Women’s Musical Club of Toronto, Walter Hall.

Lately we are getting to know Hinrich Alpers, First Laureate of the Honens International Piano Competition of 2006, who also won major awards in Norway, Germany, Austria and the U.S. This summer we had the pleasure of hearing him share in a performance of Beethoven Violin Sonatas No. 6 and 9 at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. This afternoon he joined forces with Australia’s Tinalley String Quartet, the 2007 winners of the Banff International String Quartet Competition. Their combined performance of Shostakovich’s “Quintet for Piano and Strings in G Major” rocked my world.

Alpers’ solo this afternoon was Schumann’s “Piano Sonata in F sharp Minor, Op.11.” Alpers exhibits great care for the details of his performance, as his photograph shows. From his attack in Schumann’s opening bars one begins to understand that Alpers is a fiery player, in the mode of Martha Argerich, and that chief among his formidable gifts is sheer physical power. His response to the shifting moods, once he moves through the “Adagio” of the first movement into the “Allegro Vivace, renders them almost convulsive, marked by thunder and obsessive colourations. He makes the Steinway ring in the “Aria”, and the “Scherzo e Intermezzo” is bold in defining the powers of longing and the sense of doom that strive for dominance in Schumann’s music.

The Tinalley String Quartet are energetic, dramatic, with a gift for conveying the ardent feelings of a composition. Though playing with a visiting replacement in the first violin chair, this young ensemble showed what they can do with Mendelssohn’s passionate “Opus 13 in A Minor”. Apart from some sleepy bits during the “Adagio” which woke when it went up-tempo, the Tinalleys did some beautiful playing during the dance-like “Intermezzo,” and delivered stunning harmonies, especially in the viola, towards the end of that movement. Their “Finale” yielded a depth of tragic drama I had yet to hear. The quiet dignity of their conclusion was impressive.

Shostakovich’s “Quintet in G” is a stunning work full of fine inventions melodic, harmonic and rhythmic. Moods range from agonizing melancholy, ironic despair, passion both solemn and fiery, to raucous, boisterous, joyous knees-up gaiety. Shostakovich exploits the tone colours of every instrument successively in the “Fugue” and the “Intermezzo.” During the “Finale” strings weep, the cello pulses pizzicato like the tick of time that is echoed in the piano’s melting crystal drip. The movement ends with a kind of Russian “Bring in the Clowns” where sharp piano tones crackle over the strident strings like a firework display.

Hinrich Alpers and the Tinalley String Quartet will be taking this program on tour in the new year. A very good idea.

Alexandre Tharaud at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Last night at Music Toronto, we heard the debut in our town of a pianist and a piano. The piano is a New York Steinway, chosen by Jennifer Taylor on the advice of Jamie Parker. The pianist is the French sensation Alexandre Tharaud, whose recent recordings of Chopin’s “Preludes” and Rameau’s “Suites” in A and G transcribed from harpsichord to piano (also a Steinway) are winning accolades. Tharaud earned ovations. The Steinway, though very bright, will surely develop, over time, a glorious sound.

The slight harshness of the Steinway’s tone and its current lack of subtle degrees of warmth actually worked to our advantage last night bringing the music closer to its original incarnation on the harpsichord. M. Tharaud’s strengths as a pianist, his technique, his musicality and the careful study he has obviously lavished on the scores awakened in me a new interest in Rameau’s music. My first impression was its vividness. From the opening bars on of the “Rondeau in G”, through the delicate “Minuet” and the two pieces that follow, one is mesmerized. The musical lines stand out, the charming, disarming, song-like dance rhythms are shaded by introspective, sometimes weird chords. A frank sensuality in Tharaud’s playing brings to mind the nostalgia of a cocktail piano, and the elaborate bluesy sound of Art Tatum. This is my way of saying Tharaud brings Rameau up-to-date.

The “A Major/Minor Suite” introduces the intellect of Rameau, the composer of operas. Tharaud lets us hear the wonderful structure of each verse of these ‘dance-songs’ and the drama of their overall structure. It is very easy to appreciate the distinctiveness of M. Tharaud’s phrasing and use of rubato in “La Farfarinette”, which was the theme for Jurgen Gothe’s recently retired show on CBC radio. Over many years of listening, one came to know multiple recorded arrangements of this melody, but the distinctiveness of Tharaud’s interpretation struck one immediately as outstanding.  In my notes following the “Gavotte and six doubles” I scribbled the words: “this rocks.” Tharaud offers a nice balance of feeling, form, and drama to which I will be happy to return often through his CD on Harmonia Mundi where he plays a truly seasoned Steinway.

Tharaud really warmed to his work after intermission in the Chopin “Preludes.” His playing falls between the fire of Martha Argerich and the delicacy of Ashkenazi. In any case, these groundbreaking pieces, composed under hostile circumstances, speak to the heart, and through their combination of transcendent beauty and dissonant cathartic eruptions, restore us to balance. One measure of Tharaud’s mastery are his playing of the funereal No. 6 (B Minor) and the 12th (G# Minor) both of which demand and get excellence in the switching of melody to the left hand and in his patterning of notes held and released. Tharaud’s skill in holding a pause is totally arresting in the famous and also funereal No. 4 (E Minor). The brief but gorgeous long-lined 7th remains in the mind as do the fleet 16th (Bb Minor) and the turbulent F Minor, No. 18.

Tharaud’s playing, whether forte or soft, joins the notes in a beautiful way that keeps the work as a whole moving forward. His physical style at the keyboard is distinctive and conveys his sincerity without being distracting. Ovations and two encores, a Couperin piece among them sent us on our way deeply satisfied.

Brentano String Quartet at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Thursday, October 16, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

Jennifer Taylor invited the Brentano String Quartet to open Music Toronto’s 37th season. This energetic and vivid group chose a programme of groundbreaking works by Haydn, Mozart and Mendelssohn whose originality they proved in a performance style marked by melodic flow and dramatically contrasted voicings.

Haydn’s “String Quartet in G minor, Op. 20, No. 3” (1772) is by Haydn’s own admission the product of a time when his isolation at Esterhazy deprived him of the influence of Vienna’s musical scene and forced him to develop ‘originality’.  In the works of Op. 20, Haydn abandons the ‘pretty and galant’ style of the 20 or so quartets he had written previously. Instead, he seriously puts forward intense expression of his passions in forms that return to the fugal style of Bach, and he creates new textures by sharing themes more equally among the instruments.

For example, Nina Lee’s rich cello plays the melody of the third movement’s reflective opening theme, the violins (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin) take the inner part and the Misha Amory’s viola holds down the bass. The feeling is intimate, almost lonely; the pacing slow with distinctly held pauses between phrases that somehow round off the corners of the musical turns and emphasize a sense of flow. There is so much drama at this point, that one hears foreshadowings of Beethoven.

The popular buzz about Haydn is that he considered himself a hardworking composer but downplayed his native originality. Mozart is known for the effortless facility of his music making, but he refers to this “Prussian” quartet in B-flat minor, K. 589 as “this troublesome task.” His graceful and happy composition masks the crushing difficulties of this period of Mozart’s life (1790) when he was struggling to attract the patronage of the cello-playing King of Prussia.

However, the brilliant melodic ideas that alternate flowing lyricism with furious rushes of novel harmonies in this composition, so evident in the first movement, also convey a profound sense of resignation and acceptance. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the opening of the second movement, the Larghetto, where the first violin sits silent while the cello states the lyrical opening theme. Steinberg then echoes that theme, introduces a passive secondary melody before merging as a distinctive strand into the tonal fabric the Bretanos weave.

The chromatic melodies in the dark trio played insistently by pairs of instruments speak of rough and difficult travels, but the movement ends cheerfully, as if with a smile. This mood is dissolved as the Finale proceeds by means of a contrapuntal logic that suggests a narrative almost comprehensible as speech, and the story ends quietly.

It has been two years since Mendelssohn’s second string quartet, the “A Minor, Op. 13” was performed at a Music Toronto concert by the Lafayette String Quartet. Their account of the 18 year old composer’s extended love song to a mysterious romantic attachment had the feeling of “West Side Story” unfolding in the Prussian court. This past summer, at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, the technical complexity inspired in Mendelssohn by the late quartets of the recently deceased Beethoven was revealed with an awesome range of colour and texture by the Leipzig String Quartet, who also brought the work to a razor’s edge of precision and balance.

The Brentano’s performance tonight was stormy and stirring, looking back to feelings Beethoven is said to have harboured for the ensemble’s namesake, his ‘immortal beloved’ Antonie Brentano. The first movement, marked ‘Adagio; Allegro vivace,’ opens darkly with a painful question that lingers and swells to a crescendo before bursting into a violent rush of passion that builds through contrapuntal, dissonant surges towards a turbulent ending.

The Adagio that follows opens pizzicato and contains a pair of violin cadenzas that stir foreshadowings of the love of women we hear in the music of Mahler and Dvorak. The Intermezzo sings delicately a folk like theme with pizzicato accompaniment that banishes the previous emotionality into a day-at-the-fair sprightly canter. The Finale is ‘Presto’, vigorous as a horserace, and ends by recalling the question Mendelssohn opened the piece with. Though it gives much pleasure to hear this piece, one can’t help noticing it sets the bar a bit lower than the Haydn and Mozart.

That said, we hope it will not be another five years before the Brentano String Quartet is invited to Music Toronto.

The Naked Emperor 2008: “Secret Truths” Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

Friday, October 4, Kobayashi Hall, Toronto.

The Woodbridge Dancers opened The Naked Emperor’s (TNE) second annual Charity concert in support of the Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund.  The secret truth the dancers explored is about “the wisdom and truth that comes with experience…not necessarily age.” The TNE’s creative trio of production executives has strong ties to the local artistic community and a belief which is a secret that should be revealed to Stephen Harper: namely, that ‘artists give back to the community’, therefore artists are worthy of our support.

The program was a tastefully selected banquet of musical modes. Chantal Ferris’ Woodbridge Dancers [click on the photo] performed to the music of Sting, Apocalypta and Jadely. Phil Disera, a composer who has a fine technique on classical, steel string and electric guitars performed three smooth lyrical originals on classical guitar and accompanied the lovely TNE co-producer, Francesca Blandizzi on two of her sensitive Folk/Blues originals, which she delivered in a soft, clear, breathy style.

Hubert Razack [click on photo] sang a couple of dream-inspired originals in a pleasing tenor full of personality that touched on the innocence of inner children and our secret wish to lead them into the light of day. Razack’s songs were classed as World Music along with Kozaburo Hirai’s “Fantasy for piano Sakura Sakura,” and Pierre Galant’s “Six Variations on ‘Land of the Silver Birch,’” which were played on the piano by featured pianist Yuka Koreeda. This versatile young woman also introduced us to the intense heartbreak of the Italian father of the sonnet Petrarch in a piece by Franz Liszt, and the intimacies of the suicidal lover from Franz Schubert’s masterpiece “Die Schone Mullerin.”

From the world of opera we had heldentenor Jason Lamont delivering towering recitals of Puccini’s “Nessum Dorma” from Tosca, and Leoncavallo’s “Vesti la guibba”. Accompanying Mr. Lamont on piano was the highly skilled vocal accompanist Nicole Bellamy. Ms. Bellamy also accompanied soprano soloist, choral singer, teacher and conductor Susan Suchard’s widely ranging, lightly coloured account of “Tacea la notte placida” from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, in which she reveals her preference for death if she cannot be with the man she loves. Ms. Suchard also surprised us pleasantly with Rogers and Hammerstein’s inspirational song of comfort “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

The Classical “Violin Concertino in A minor op. 29” played by Jinne Kim [click on photo] was for me the most surprising secret revealed this evening. It was composed by Emiko Hsuen, TNE’s musical director, a trained singer of lieder whose compositions I thought were limited to the contemporary vocal music we heard several times this evening. It seems Ms. Hsuen has no limits. She also served as the Oz-like invisible voice that mastered the evening’s ceremonies in a very dignified fashion. Many of her remarks were directed towards the work of the Canadian Music Therapy Trust Fund. She urged us all to find out more about their great work and to make a generous donation. If you are inclined to go with this suggestion, you could find what you need at

Art of Time Ensemble’s Words & Music reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

You might expect to hear Cesar Franck’s exquisite “Violin Sonata in A Major” performed by Mayumi Seiler of Via Salzburg with Andrew Burashko on piano at an Art of Time concert. And repeated visits to Art of Time concerts might have opened your mind to be delightfully expanded by readings between movement of passages from Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” that put into words the effect of listening to just such a Sonata. But I challenge you to imagine the great and wonderful surprise it would be to enjoy as the next course Ted Dykstra’s ass-on-the-Yamaha tribute to Jerry Lee Lewis rocking boogie woogie “Golly Miss Mollie.” Oh Yeah!!!![CLICK HERE FOR AN ENLARGEMENT]

There is a stillness in Justin Rutledge’s work that holds my attention. He presented some work he’s done with the words of two authors: Guy Vanderhaegue, whose book of stories “Man Descending (1982)” provided inspiration and a title for Rutledge’s 2008 album; and Michael Ondaatje, whose character – Cooper — in his recent Novel “Divisadero” is the subject of Rutledge’s second song. Both songs were performed beautifully with Rutledge singing slowly and quietly over his simple guitar arrangement backed by the wail of a pedal steel guitar. His work is as solid and sincere as the writing that inspires it. [CLICK HERE FOR AN ENLARGEMENT]

Ondaatje impressed with his reading of passages from “Divisadero”. He reads without display, so you feel the tension that binds his words like atoms in a molecular chain. You feel the movement of first love blooming in freedom and the implacable forces that overtake and destroy it to make something more iconic, if not more lasting. The tension Ondaatje generated was discussed, so to speak, among the members of a chamber ensemble of first rate musicians including Julia Wedman (violin) and Kate Haynes (cello) of Tafelmusik; Max Christie, principal clarinet of the National Ballet Orchestra and just about every top new music ensemble in this town; NJA 2008 bassist of the year George Koller; new music specialist Michael White on trumpet; and Burashko himself on piano. They played a composition by Gemini award winning composer Robert Carli that concluded by dissolving your mind into space.

Speaking of minds in space, can Allen Ginsberg still howl for us? Yes he can, through the ubiquitous Ted Dykstra, his hair unwigged and slicked back taking us along on Ginsberg’s cosmic dithyrambic rant. Perhaps for many now, 53 years after publication, the opening lines are merely an historical curiosity: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….” Perhaps not.

But you can hear that the words of Ginsberg’s song, his phrases have entered the realm of immortal literature, where they sing to the heart and make people laugh in recognition of their raw truth:

“who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot
for Eternity outside of Time, & alarm clocks
fell on their heads every day for the next decade,
who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccess-
fully, gave up and were forced to open antique
stores where they thought they were growing
old and cried….”

Dykstra’s reading (which could have been much slower and more deliberately phrased) was supported by a darkly brilliant hellishly free-jazz composition played by a quartet led by composer Jonathan Goldsmith at the piano. Honorable mention to Gregory Hoskins who got the evening started by singing a slow high lovely version of the Mercer/Van Heusen 1939 tune “I Thought About You”, famously sung over the years by lyricist Johnny Mercer, Billie Holiday, and Sinatra. Hoskins, who performed with a fine band that featured electric violin virtuoso Hugh Marsh, after Michael Ondaatje had just read the lyrics, proved to me at least that some words aren’t much with out music.

Much appreciation goes to Andrew Burashko who continues to magnetize great musicians and great ideas about musical culture that rub against the grain of politicians who discount the power of the arts in our time.