Archive for January, 2009

KORNGOLD:SOURCE & INSPIRATION @ The Art of Time Ensemble reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2009. Enwave Theatre, Toronto.

I’m always trying to find ways of mixing things up, integrating the music with other elements to create programs that I really want to play and that nobody else is doing.” Andrew Burashko

Hearing music through Andrew Burashko’s ear is always an adventure. He works the centre and edges of the Romantic tradition—Schubert, Schumann, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and Schuloff, to name just a few composers whose works Burashko has mined for gems that need to be heard in the right setting, where they can be heard without prejudice. The right setting is the group of his friends—some of the leading classical, jazz and crossover musicians, composers, arrangers, songwriters, singers, choreographers, dancers and film-makers in the country—whom Burashko collaborates with under the name Art of Time Ensemble.

For this AoTE episode, Burashko chose a unique composition by Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a composer whose popular success writing film scores in America killed the reputation he’d won in Europe before World War II as a ‘serious’ composer. Happily, the time has arrived when it is becoming possible for large audiences to once again enjoy the extraordinary beauty of Korngold’s music, so rich in clearly stated melodies, and orchestrated with inventive touches that never fail to engage an open mind.

Korngold’s beautifully elegiac Suite for 2 violins, cello & piano left hand, Op 23 (1930) is unique for its grouping of strings as well as for the fact that it was written on commission for a one-handed pianist.  The first of its five movements is a prelude and fugue stated first in a sombre, percussive piano solo that Burashko plays with both hands. Stephen Sitarski’s violin answers with emotion, then Thomas Weibe’s cello adds its mellow tones, arco and pizzicato, followed by a repeat in which Ben Bowman’s second violin sings. The mood is both grand and dire until a warm, lush violin solo broadens the musical path and a sparkling piano leads the movement to its close.

There follow a gorgeous dissonant “Walzer” redolent of ‘Vienna before the war’ with a touch of irony; then comes the central movement known as “Groteske” which the piano leads at a ‘chase’ tempo that sounds like Ravel’s goblin Scarbo at a Walpurgis Nacht hoedown and wild hayride. Against a long double-stopped chromatic drone on the cello, the piano plays the theme of a warmly nostalgic nocturne that carries over into the Rondo Finale chocolaty rich in four-voiced harmonies. The ensemble follows the piano’s lead at fast tempo over abrupt, broken rhythmic ground, bounces us into the air for a long take-your-breath-away pause, and affects a really happy landing.

The next part of the program belongs to singer-songwriters Danny Michel, John Southworth, and Martin Tielli. Each chose two tuneful themes from Korngold’s Suite for their songs. They were accompanied by the piano quartet (Ben Bowman replaced by violist Steven Dann) to which Danny Michel added his guitar. Michel’s songs, “Sailor Song,” and “Island Girl,” were arranged by Robert Carli. John Southworth’s songs, “The Adventures of Erich Korngold,” and “Athabasca,” were arranged by Andrew Downing and Justin Haynes. Both of Martin Tielli’s songs, “Lied” (meaning ‘song’ in German and ‘told untruths’ in English) were arranged by Jonathan Goldsmith.

The arrangers deserve special mention because the melodies extracted from Korngold by all three singer-songwriters were enhanced to an extraordinary degree in their settings as song arrangements. The accompanying music of the piano quartet sounded great as the songs came along. The songs, with their lyrics, not so much. Perhaps it was because the words were overwhelmed by the accompaniment and the lyrics were not clearly audible. Or perhaps it was because the music was underwhelmed by the words—the few phrases I did catch at this listening did not fulfill the promise of Korngold’s music. That promise is a land that deserves a lot more pioneering by artists and audience alike.

Links::artoftimeensemble.::.martintielli:: johnsouthworth::dannymichel

BARRY DOUGLAS @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Tuesday, January 27, 2009. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

The repertory Barry Douglas made his name with includes large-scale Romantic works he has recorded—piano concertos by Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Strauss. During the past year, he has put together an off-the-record chamber-music programme that he plays in some places, and fortunately, Toronto is one of them.

The selections of Schumann, Scriabin, and Ravel, suit Douglas’ talents and his temperament. All are techically demanding: Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp major, Op. 53 are among the most technically difficult in the standard repertoire. The extreme contrasts in the work of these composers, particularly Schumann’s schizoid Sonata No.1 apparently suited his temperament as well, because Douglas just sat right down and swept through them with virtuosic abandon.

This extraverted style at first took some getting used to. The opening piece, Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 28 has a meekness about it that Douglas overwhelmed, especially during the first B flat minor “Romance” which seems to sing disconsolately of the composer’s anxiety at being separated from Clara in Vienna where he had been unable to match her success. Douglas’ strong hand and overly sustained sonorities blurred the melodic themes of the elegant and touching second “Romance”. He began to come into his own in the strongly marked triumphant B major “Romance” where his thunder and his ‘piano’ flowed from one another more naturally.

To my ear, the tone poem “Ondine” that Ravel placed at the head of his Gaspard de la Nuit has a liquid transparency that sounds best played by pianists like Louis Lortie and Walter Geiseking who tip their feelings with subtlety and finesse. But Douglas nailed the macabre doom-ridden poetry and plangent harmonies of “Le Gibet”, and his gifts for velocity, daring and vivid colouring seemed expressly made to command the frantic excitement Ravel wrote into the pursuit of the elusive goblin that is the subject of the fiendishly difficult  “Scarbo.”

Interpretations of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 vary greatly. Glenn Gould’s is probably too slow and too flattened. Sviatoslav Richter’s is masterful. It is safe to say, Hakon Austbo got it just right. Barry Douglas sat down to this sonata like it was his cup of tea. He began very slowly and worked the energy up by degrees through a kind of rippling rag-jazz section to a pitch of near violent passion. From there episodes unfolded through marginally tonal realms out into the etheric where the piece seemed to enter a moment of warp drive and then disappear.

Just as Douglas gave us an authentic account of Scriabin, his playing of Schumann’s sprawling, knotty, difficult and not very popular Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 11 brought into focus the wonderfully unified world of Schumann’s melodies. The strong colours, the songlike themes, the obssessive repeats voiced in alternation by Schumann’s turbulent and reflective pair of alter-egos, Eusebius and Florestan, all these diverse energies are swept into a single drama by the hugeness of Douglas’ technique, his powers of organization, and his unflagging concentration.

Following the tremendous excitement his program generated, Douglas’ encore, the Brahms Intermezzo in E minor, brought the audience back to a calm state.

Classical Music Consort: Haydn’s London Symphonies reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

Sunday, January 25, 2008. Trinity College Chapel, Toronto.

1791 is the year a twist of fate freed Haydn from his golden cage of servitude to the Prince of Esterhazy. That year, he began a fully-paid sabbatical and accepted an invitation from the English impresario J.P. Salomon to visit London and conduct his own works from the keyboard. The London visits continued until 1794. They made Haydn rich and famous before he returned to end his days back in Esterhazy.

1791, the year Haydn experienced the freedom that he wrote into the first three of his ”London” symphonies, France was piping airs of liberty into England, and two English Williams, Wordsworth and Blake took up the refrain. Wordsworth wrote of his 1791 visit to France, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” And Blake wrote in his poem of that year, The French Revolution, “the instruments/Of heavenly song sound in the wilds once forbidden.” These lines express some of the feelings we heard in the Classical Music Consort’s performance of Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 93,95 and 96.

These London symphonies are more ambitious and grander in scale than any of Haydn’s previous compositions. They are full of a sweeping optimism, more than a little swagger, and they show Haydn taking many liberties with form. The Symphony No. 95 is the only one Haydn wrote in a minor key. It dispenses with the usual slow introduction, bursts out with a forceful figure in the winds and strings that dominates the entire movement but always trails a gentle answer from the strings, as if to say that force in Haydn’s work is tempered with courtesy.

The Minuet is longer than usual and is slightly macabre (one thinks of Bartok and Weill), sounding notes on the strange and perhaps fugitive feelings of new-found freedom. Kerri McGonigle’s cello solo during the contrasting Trio was very positive, and Ed Reifel’s work on timpani was elegant, particularly from the Finale’s rapid fortissimo section up to the recapitulation and conclusion.

The contrasts of storm and sunshine in the Symphony 96 in G Major were exaggerated by conductor Ashiq Aziz’s deliberate tempos especially as they resounded within the stone enclosure of the Trinity College Chapel. By turns terse and warmhearted, the opening movement sometimes laboured to maintain a balance. The middle movements shone. Aziz produced a nicely shaped wistful effect in the slow movement that suggested the Arcadian grief of Orpheus pining for Eurydice.  He brought the touching minor theme of the middle section to a gorgeous close with horns in delicate counterpoint to the violins. The Minuet was uplifted, and Curtis Foster’s oboe solo during the Trio was delightful. The Ensemble reached a peak of articulate harmony playing the delicate rondo of the Finale.

The Symphony No. 93 in D Major had some highlights. The opening Allegro had a transparent richness.  I liked the minor key development and the sudden pauses that reveal Haydn’s humour. Aziz manages an audacious symmetry between the delicate string quartet that opens the slow movement and the ladylike bassoon fart towards the end.

Soloists on oboe, bassoon, cello and transverse flute as well as the concertmaster Christopher Verrette are among the best in the country.  Generally the performance maintained a high standard despite the occasional squeak of period instruments.

Classical Music Consort founder Ashiq Aziz needs congratulations and support for his undertaking to celebrate Haydn’s Bicentenary with a project that will present the best of Haydn’s Symphonies, Quartets, Trios and Songs between now and October.

Visit www.classicalmusicconsort.org for details.

TOKYO STRING QUARTET’S Beethoven Op. 18.1-3 @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

There were no musicians, no instruments, only the music playing itself, or so it seemed, as Beethoven’s first three string quartets manifested in the space of the packed house at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

Beethoven’s earliest quartets owe much to Haydn’s classicism and show great purity of line. At this stage of his development, Beethoven’s originality in the expression of emotion and in technical innovation also comes, following Haydn, as elements of surprise, rather than in full dress, as they do in the later works.

The current Tokyo players, two founding members (1969) on viola and second violin, cello (1996) and first violin (2002) cleave to Beethoven’s dynamics, grading the sudden changes a bit more smoothly than they did in the 1992 Tokyo recording with Peter Oundjian as leader. Their playing tonight was refined, elegant, and effortless, often sounding like it was played by one person. Meticulously gauged pauses brought out the drama of the works: bursts of colour and inflection bloomed like full blooded but fleeting smiles on the face of a geisha.

From the opening bars of the G Major allegro, first violin Martin Beaver laid a trail of sweet lyrical phrases, while Clive Greensmith’s cello sounded melancholy notes sincerely but never coloured outside the bounding lines of graceful manners. Founder Kazuhide Isomura’s viola filled in the conclusion with a hint of darkness that alluded to Mozart and indicated the gravity of the adagio cantabile that followed. Then came a surprising shift in mood and tempo of the allegro that darkens again during the closing dialogue between violin and cello. The scherzo gallops for a bit, goes solemn in the trio and returns again as founder Kikue Ikeda’s violin joins with the leader to close this third movement and initiate the ‘unbuttoned’ gaiety of the finale.

The Quartet in D, No. 3 is generally contemplative in mood, not to say sad. It is also dramatic. Beethoven frequently interrupts the calm, warm, tender, singing strings with slashing staccato chords, as if asserting a freedom from the constraints of the form he is observing. The slow movement—andante con moto—is tenderly eloquent, and is animated as if from underneath, by surges of feeling, a sense of melodramatic turmoil alternating with a gentle, healing pulse that brings the movement “with sighs and syncopations” to fade away on a barely audible pianissimo. Even the bright scherzos embedded with a swirling trio are veiled in a minor key sadness that is so touching. The swift, jokey, final presto drives and turns like a tarantella rendered in chiaroscuro by Rembrandt—vivacity flashing out of darkness.

The Quartet in F stands as No. 1 at the head of the opus because Beethoven judged it the most impressive of his first three compositions not because it was written first. Beethoven made nine tries (recorded in sixteen pages of his notebooks) to perfect the opening motif. It has since been described by Joseph Kerman as the “coiled spring”, that dominates about one third of the movement. Staccato “Da da-ta-da-ta Dum, Da da-ta-da-ta Dum,” followed by lyrical sighing sets up the emotional tension and dramatic sweep of this movement.

The adagio is drama itself. Beethoven conceived this movement as an emotional program for the scene in the burial vault of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The tempo is funereal in perfect taste, the melody discreetly mournful, the accompaniment a stately steady pulse expressing both grief and consolation.

The scene progresses first in a flare of emotion floating up on tender voices that become transparent and fade into nothingness. The scherzo leaps upward in perky lines that carry with them some weighty mystery. The concluding rondo pounces on the ear with tremendous verve and never rests from the opening Mozartean swirl of violins, through the biting offbeats of the recapitulation and the bright wit of the coda.

The encore, one was demanded, the burletta from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 6 was like a Zen-master’s one stroke sumi brush circle that says “Mu”— beyond any category at all.

DUO DIORAMA at New Music Concerts reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009, The Music Gallery, Toronto

Duo Diorama is the husband and wife team of pianist Winston Choi and violinist Minghaun Xu. While they both have active, worldwide careers as concert soloists and as teachers at American Universities, as a Duo they have become a leading proponent of music of living composers. In the last few years, they have commissioned and premiered over 20 works. The program of last night’s very full program included four newly commissioned works, with three of the composers present: John Austin (U.S.A 1934), Brian Current (Canada, 1972), and John Melby (U.S.A.) who also ‘played’ the electronics of his piece.

John Melby mentioned, in an illuminating pre-concert group interview (that is one of the specialties of New Music Concerts), that he’d like it if people listened to his Concerto for violin, piano and computer (2008) as if it were Brahms.  Melby’s Concerto was fun to listen to because it is a triple concerto and more. The violin and the piano have their parts and their cadenzas. The orchestral component is supplied by the computer’s electronically generated and managed sounds that come from another dimension that generates yet another sonic dimension as they windshield-wiper across the room between the left and right stereo speakers. The orchestra participates with the soloists and also has many interludes of its own, filling the room with weird organ-synth outpourings, reverbs, feedbacks, hollow spacey rings dings gongs and a few high pitches that made the stereocilia of the inner ear dance frantically. And, indeed, amid the fiendishly difficult gestures of violin and piano one could at times hear Brahmsian textures both soothing and dramatic.

Winston Choi played Affulgat sol omnibus animalibus dei (2007) written for him by Brian Current. Choi had mentioned in the pre-concert interview that Current’s writing challenged him to work out new fingerings. The music for each hand is often very different, with a stream of arpeggios rippling out of his left hand while the right hand taps out a thematic motive. There are passages built on repeated phrases that move cross-handed from left to right and jazzy bits where the right handles the fluid streamings and the left works out repeated figures. The effect of the contrasting textures and moods of energy and calm is a bit like the play of light over a bed of shale, or traffic flowing over macadam.

John Austin’s Three Translations for violin and piano (2008) is based on three classical Chinese poems in which “nothing is connected,” and where “ a world of emotion is expressed through the objective world.”  There are Chinese tones singing in the strings and the crystalline fall of notes from the keyboard or faint ripples of wind as Mr. Choi reaches in and strums the strings. There are falling cadences, romantic and sad, forceful scrubbing of violin strings, soothing piano meditations, and silent rests that convey peace.

Bright Sheng’s The Stream Flows for solo violin (1990) showcased the gorgeous, deep, woody tones of Ms. Xu’s Nicolas Gagliano that she plays with untiring precision, strength and clarity. The piece offers a lot of variety: raucous fiddling, eerie whistling, rough staccato pizzicato, sleepy lullabies, passages of sheer beauty, and a kind of playfulness that radiated from Ms. Xu’s face. Her virtuosity impresses.

Elliott Carter’s Duo for violin and piano (1974), and Marcos Balter’s RE:(No Subject) for violin and piano (2008) filled the bill.

DARRET ZUSKO, pianist, at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Thursday, January 15, 2008, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Darrett Zusko is the first young Canadian Artist to appear in Music Toronto’s DISCOVERY series. Mr. Zusko has won prizes in six major piano competitions during the last few years and has just completed his first recording — the works of the late Canadian composer Oskar Morawetz.

The two Schubert pieces he played on Music Toronto’s new Steinway seemed to sound harsh, mechanical, and without poetry. Our disappointment was explained at intermission when we heard the piano-tuner working on the ailing instrument. Fortunately the second half of the concert was a full program of adventurous music that Mr. Zusko played brilliantly, justifying this repeat of some words of praise by his teacher at Julliard: “Darrett is probably the most technically-gifted pianist I have taught in 30 years….”

The three sections of Fantasy, Elegy, and Toccata (1956) by the late Oskar Morawetz are quite different in mood. But all are marked by a flowing, rhythmic vitality, a lyricism that spans the keyboard, and tricky, shifting time changes. Zusko’s account was well-crafted, sensitive to the poetics of feeling that ranged from quirky to elegant, melancholy to sardonic, eerie to thunderous. He presented the piece as a unified, continuous flow of lines assembled in the form of a mosaic. Very interesting.

Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 68 is a single movement work written on the eve of WW1, and championed by Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Zusko’s performance was electrifying. The piece is marked by dissonance, and a sense of instability that Mr. Zusko lets wail and cascade into mounting complexity and tension, pegging it to the ground like a tent in a gale by the five-note motif that is repeated intermittently throughout. Mr. Zusko’s reveals the astonishing quickness of his mind as he navigates three staves of music, and his left hand work is exciting.

The program ended with a seriously hot rendition of Bela Bartok’s 1926 Suite Out of Doors, a contrasted sequence of five character pieces. All five make percussive use of discordant intervals which are marvelous, but Mr. Zusko manages to get some wonderfully weird chiming overtones going that I don’t recall ever hearing. His work in the lowest register of the piano is powerful but contained, and his icy top notes sparkle. The fourth section, entitled “Night Music” came convincingly alive with creatures that dart and flit, and he drove the finale “Chase” with ferocious insistence, propelling with his left hand the insistent five-note groups around the melodic elements.

During the beautiful but unnamed Chopin encore, it occurred to me that Mr. Zusko’s technical brilliance is in the service of a mind that makes manifest the form and the inner logic of the music he plays.  This is a talent that should serve him well at the first stage of the Honens International Piano Competition in New York where he will be competing in March.