Archive for February, 2009

CD of The Five Beethoven Piano Concertos on EMI reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

BEETHOVEN: The Complete Piano Concertos. Evgeny Kissin (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis. EMI CLASSICS 2063112 [3 CDs: 62:44 + 74:20 + 41:48]

“Great art is news that stays news.” Ezra Pound said it, and these recordings are breaking news. Plenty of benchmark recordings of Beethoven’s fab five are still around: Murray Perahia with Haitink conducting the Concertgebouw, Alfred Brendel with Rattle conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, and my longtime favourite—Radu Lupu with Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic.

One outstanding feature of this newest set is the balance of piano and orchestra staged in a big stereo sky. Kissin’s Steinway flashes in the LSO’s velvety orchestral firmament like an animated zodiac portraying the full range and character of the composer’s imagination.

The musicianship of soloist and conductor are nicely matched in the first two concertos on Disc One. Beethoven’s youthful lyricism comes through side by side with his witty mockery of the ‘galant’ style that was still gripping popular taste of his audience despite the advances of Haydn and Mozart. Piano Concerto No. 3 is a great performance. Kissin unleashes the fabled fiery virtuosity in his entrance to the first movement, but never overbalances the musical architecture that Davis subtly shades with his baton. If there is an overall flashiness to the performance, it is less about Kissin and more about Beethoven finding the weight of his own voice.

Kissin’s recordings of the Fourth and Fifth concertos do not replace the daring originality I find in Radu Lupu’s set. They have their own distinction—a particularly live quality about them. Kissin, in this period of his maturity as a superhuman of pianism, seems at home in the anguished fibrillations of the slow movement. He is equally at home in the forceful grandeur of the “Emperor”. His handling of Beethoven’s cadenzas is magnificent. The ‘Adagio’ is magically rich. Only time will tell whether this new roar from the ‘Lion of the Keyboard’ will become “news that stays news.” Until that time, the Kissin/Davis/LSO is a highly recommended listen.

YURI BASHMET & MOSCOW SOLOISTS reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Tuesday, February 17, 2009, Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto

Yuri Bashmet played Max Bruch’s Kol Nidre, Op. 40 on a Testore viola like the model Mozart used. Its singing voice, more redolent of hollow body than strings, is unforgettable. The music itself is a sublime blend of this unique instrumental voice, and a soaring Hebrew devotional melody not so emotionally different from the folk melodies Bruch chose for his Scottish Fantasy of 1880.

In designing programs for his viola and the Moscow Soloist chamber string orchestra that he has been conducting since 1992, Bashmet gets involved with transcriptions. The Bruch was originally scored for solo cello, winds, brass, harp, timpani and strings. What transcribed pieces lose in orchestral richness, they gain in sharpness and elegance, a good trade-off.

One of the strengths of Bashmet’s conducting is his ability to bring out a lot of colour and unusual spatial effects. Grieg’s Holberg Suite, for example, being a tribute to a the Danish writer Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) and originally composed as a piano suite, opens with a Baroque “Praeludium” that sounds a bit like a Brandenburg Concerto, but with an added flair and an expansive sense of prairie landscape. The contrasting “Sarabande” while sober and reflective is unmistakably romantic in its sweep. The “Aria” is a bit of a tear-jerker in which the cellos do very remarkable work. The final “Rigaudon” is a knees-up fiddle piece recalling Vivaldi. It is also based on a folk theme, and is very well constructed.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of the evening was Stravinsky’s little-known Concerto in D that shifts between D Major and D Minor throughout the work making difficult demands on conductor and instrumentalists alike. Maestro Bashmet led the orchestra through the rich score with a feather touch that brought out the composer’s characteristic rhythmic imbalances: the nervous, staccato, percussive voicings of the first movement, the ethereal indigo waltz of the “Arioso,” and the locomotive buzz of the enigmatic, comic “Rondo.”

The music of the second half of the concert was interesting musically but was even more entertaining due to the all-round display of virtuosity. Bashmet rescored a Paganini quartet for violin, viola, guitar and cello into a work for solo viola and small orchestra. It is full of great tunes, many with a tsigane flair, and is enlivened by some awesome moto perpetuo passages for the soloist, and much alternation between soft and wild parts spiced with very skillful pizzicato.

The evening was crowned with the turbulent and lyrical Souvenir de Florence, Op. 70 by Tchaikovsky. The piece, scored down from the original full orchestral version is filled with folk melodies, Russian melancholic moods, and sparkling energy. After many offerings of flowers by pretty young men and women, Bashmet brought the evening back to ground with a hauntingly beautiful version of Bach’s Air on the G String.

ESPRIT ORCHESTRA: “BREATHLESS” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Saturday, February 5, 2009, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

Ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight”                   –William Blake–

Alexina Louie’s Infinite Sky With Birds (2006) takes off from a moment of delight when a flock of birds rise towards what feels like infinite freedom. Louie captures the physicality of that image through sound. Strings and winds flutter: musical fragments flit from one group of instruments to another. The silver transparency of solo flute music expands by the brass into endless chromatic rainbows. The orchestration is varied and beautifully balanced. This is gentle, non-violent, positive, and intelligent music.

Impatience, defined as” waiting fast,” is the little paradox at the heart of John Rea’s Figures Hatives (Hurried Figures)(2006). The dry scrape of harp strings punctuated by lugubrious bassoon introduces the paradox. From this ground, the soloist, Marie Bérard, and the Esprit Orchestra pass the music between them impatiently, sounding as if someone were abruptly shifting the balance knob on a stereo system back and forth between right and left speakers. The violin song threads among ballooning tympanic volumes. Mlle. Bérard’s sonorities alternate between nervous tremolo and hoedown-fiddler harshness. Her solos, some of them very ‘hurried’ indeed, are echoed by winds and brass. In other parts towards the end, her violin seems to be driving the orchestra as if it were the throttle of a train. Rea creates separate layers of sound that seem to float over one another. An occasional whip-interrupts the build-up of nail-biting tension.  The whole performance is marked by an exciting musicality.

Unsuk Chin describes her 20 minute work, Double Concerto (2002) for piano, percussion and ensemble as “a music of highly coloured bearing and expression, free-flowing and agile, unfolding sometimes in completely unexpected directions.” The soloist parts sometimes shadow each other. I particularly enjoyed a dialogue of prepared piano and muted vibraphone that inspired me to imagine waves of rodent feet running over a heap of empty green coke bottles. Below this imagery, peripatetic percussionist Ryan Scott introduced the jungle boom of tom-toms, clank of cowbells, and sparky xylophone runs, against which slidey string and wind sounds whistle, whine and decay. This all makes for beautiful listening.

“How but in custom and in ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?”  W.B. Yeats.

Esprit Orchestra Conductor Alex Pauk introduced Three Studies from Couperin (2006) as a ‘breather’. Indeed it was. The melodic material of this music that Couperin wrote for harpsichord 300 years ago remains in its understated, ceremonious simplicity as a pleasure easy to enjoy, particularly at the end of an evening of knotty new music. Thomas Adès’ reconfigured arrangements add layers of subtle variations to Couperin’s formulaic repetitions, and his orchestral arrangement of the original solo keyboard writing introduces gently waving, anachronistic brownish harmonies that flutter along the edges of comedy and romance. The inclusion of this piece was an inspired bit of programming.

ROBERTO OCCHIPINTI’s CD a bend in the river Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Roberto Occhipinti, a bend in the river, 7 songs, 48 min. Alma Records, 2009. ACD11182

Basic Band: Luiz Deniz, a.sax, David Virelles, piano, Dafnis Prieto, dr., Roberto Occhipinti, bass. Plus Michael Occhipinti, guit., Tony Allen, dr. Chamber Sextet: Marie Berard, v1., Annalee Patipatanakoon,v2., Douglas Perry, vio., Roman Borys, cel., Les Alit, fl., John Johnson, b.clar., Kevin Turcotte, tr. String Orchestra: Globalis Orchestra, Konstantin Krimets, cond.

Roberto Occhipinti skimmed the cream of jazz and chamber players in Canada and poured it into this album he produced. Occhipinti wrote 5 tunes recorded here, John Coltrane wrote 1, and the closing cut is by Luiz Deniz, the band’s alto player. The title track personnel are the band, backed by the Chamber Sextet and the String Orchestra. Maybe bend in the river is Occhipinti going further into the jazz-classical crossover ensemble mode he’s explored on earlier records.

Bend In The River is originally the title of a novel by V. S, Naipaul that explores success in terms of connecting with one’s roots. Accordingly, there is a lot of Occhipinti’s varied background in this album. There are references to Bartok and Brecker, Charlie Hayden and Cuban Cha Cha, Kenny Garrett, Goodfellas–the movie–, and the Gryphon Trio.

“Umbria” opens with a classical canon played by a string quartet for under a minute; then Occhipinti’s bass bounces it into contemporary jazz mode. Luiz Deniz’s sax swings out a melody that is echoed by the jazz band, Dafnis Prieto’s drums supplying punctuation that the orchestral strings soften. The ever-excellent pianist David Virelles develops the theme with pearly variations. Deniz talks back, gets intense, recapitulates the melody against a heavily arranged background laced with instrumental crosstalk until the whole thing comes to an end sounding like a slightly Latin sonata.

“A Bend In The River” opens with a gush of strings that sounds synthed and brings to mind the chromatic blush of an African sunset. The notes of Occhipiniti’s bass solo melody bounce like a row of sinewy Masai warriors. He sets a beat that moves to the back when Deniz’s sax bleats out an ostinato theme, the strings talk it back, and Tony Allen does some nice work on drums. The whole arrangement is rich, but the strings and the sax doing a lot of lush repeats begin to sound a bit round.

Coltrane’s “Naima” opens with a reflective bass solo over strings. I never tire of hearing Occhipinti’s solos; the tone and timbre are unique and personal. He speaks. The string orchestra not so much. The sax is romantic and blue like a 40’s movie about night-time in New York. With the added strings, you get that heavy, sweet ‘movie’ feeling a lot on this album.

The rest of the way through it, I enjoyed listening for excellence in the bass, Virelles’ piano, and the rolling bones of drummer Dafnis Prieto.

Roberto Occhipinti’s previous recordings are: Trinacria (2001), The Cusp (2003), and Yemaya (2006).