Archive for April, 2009

Metamorphosis Concert Series: SERGEI BABAYAN reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009


Tuesday, April 7, 2009, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto

The encore was a piece by Aarvo Part: notes like after a sun shower raindrops fatten and slide off young leaves overhanging a pond. Ripples of the final note spread through the hall, and Sergei Babayan sat, his hands resting on his lap, enjoying the stillness.  Babayan’s demeanor, from start to finish, radiates the confidence of a pianist who has something to say about familiar music that makes you feel you have never heard it before.

Three Schubert songs transcribed by Liszt (“Der Muller etc., S.565 No.2,” “Gretchen etc. S.558 No.8,” “Auf dem Wasser etc S.558 No.2”), flow out from his hands with an unheard of tenderness. In Babayan’s hands, Schubert’s melodies—airy, floaty, fully-formed but unsubstantial, are pure feeling made manifest. The passion of “Gretchen” played lightly but with speed and urgency comes across not as a musical story being told, but as something happening on the spot that is chillingly real.

Mr. Babayan’s Rameau (Suite No. 2 in A minor) is a gentle but irresistable wake-up call. My comparison here is the Rameau specialist, Alexandre Tharaud, who recently played the piece in Toronto. I remember enjoying Tharaud’s distinctive phrasing and use of rubato, his overall sense of structure. If Tharaud’s version ‘rocked’, Babayan’s version ‘rocked all night like his back ain’t got no bone.’ Which is to say, the facility and felicity of Babayan’s touch brought out of the quick, cross-handed complexities of Rameau a delicate joyfulness.

The final piece on the ‘familiar’ portion of the  program—11 selections from Bach’s Klavierbuchlein—were sweet and playful. The distinctly articulated right and left hand parts emerged like reflections on the stream of Bababyan’s tender, meditative, and overall—mesmerizing approach. The ‘unfamiliar’ component of the program was the hair-rasing Fantasia in C minor, Op. 21, in memory of Maria Yudina by Vladimir Ryabov (b. 1950).

Mr. Babayan abandoned himself to the piano and became entirely absorbed in it. Ryabov’s music is bipolar: painfully tender, trilling passages are succeeded by tolling repetitions of chaotic chords and thunder. Unheard of harmonies, dark percussive figures somehow release vibrations of etherial overtones. The concluding ‘Capriccio’ unleashes a perpetual motion figure that sounds to me like boogie-woogie rocking out until it breaks the piano and Babayan keeps playing as if on a broken piano until silence encroaches on the music and swallows it.

We are very grateful to pianist Shoko Inoue for preparing the concert series Metamorphosis, and for including in the series this man whom she describes as “the most caring and nourishing teacher I have ever had. He has shown me the power of the pianist to be able to reach, so to say, from beyond the sky and to bring that beauty back to this earth.”  To learn more about Metamorphosis, Mr. Babayan, Ms. Inoue and her vision of music please go to this link.

Amici Presents POULENC’S MUSINGS reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

Friday, April 3, 2009, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto

“To write what seems right to me, when I want to, that is my motto as a composer.”   Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc called his Sextet for piano and wind quintet (1932-39) “an homage to the wind instruments which I have loved from the moment I began composing.” Wind voices bring an immediate sense of characters: the bassoon, melancholy but verging on humour; the assertive horn, the sleepy oboe waking to the morning light, the idyllic flute tender as a breeze; the clarinet, rich and variously toned as honey.

The world of winds in Poulenc’s music evoke twin paradises of Parisian madcap excitement of the music-hall, Le Bal Masqué and café jazz/ragtime, and the peace of the countryside rooted in the enduring, fruitful earth. It is quintessential French music, sparkling with sophistication and consumed by a poignant sadness, the tender and nostalgic yearning for a sweetness that lives in art and memories.

The program of this brilliantly conceived concert displays the wealth of Poulenc’s composing life. The Sonata for clarinet and bassoon (1922) is an early fruit of Poulenc’s decision to balance his native gift for melody and harmony with further studies in counterpoint. Joaquin Valdepeñas—clarinet and Michael Sweeney—bassoon interwove voices both subtle and direct to bring out the cartoonish jokiness, the romantic sweetness, and the shifting conceptions of this very difficult piece.

Sarah Jeffrey—oboe, and Serouj Kradjian—piano, joined Sweeney to play Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon which Poulenc had worked on from 1921-1928. It is the most beautiful of Poulenc’s chamber works of this period, and marks the start of his lifelong practice of including the richness of the piano to his chamber textures. The work shows a careful attention to the composer’s chosen models—his friend Stravinsky’s neo-classical sense of the piano, and the structural examples of Haydn and Saint-Saëns. The Amici musicians tuned into both the madcap velocity and the serious depths of the music. They realized the clarity of voice Poulenc worked for, the instinctive poignancy of his melodies and delicacy of his feeling, the unity of his design.

David Hetherington joined Serouj Kradjian for a late work that Poulenc laboured over for eight years, the Sonata for cello and piano (1940-48). The achingly beautiful opening melody given by the cello establishes a sense of deep heartedness. Against this, the piano poises urbane melodies, imitative passages, and crashing chords. Hetherington executes some surprising whistles, thrilling glissandos, and passages of unsurpassable softness. The performers achieve an excellent balance of melody and accompaniment, motion and richness.

The evening was closed by Poulenc’s late ‘40’s collaboration with dramatist Jean Anouilh—L’Histoire de Babar, told by narrator Steven Page with Serouj Kradjian at the piano. Page read well, animating the words, and Kradjian impressed with his virtuosity in making those words live through music in which we can hear all the sophistication and the sweetness of Poulenc.

St.Lawrence String Quartet at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Thursday, April 2, 2009, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

The Quartet is poised to play the opening notes premièring a Brian Current piece they co-commissioned with Stan Witkin and Music Toronto to celebrate the SLSQ’s 20th anniversary. Entitled “Rounds”(2009), this nine minute single movement composition sketched in Kyoto and written in Toronto is an overlapping sequence of melodic phrases repeated like a traditional ‘round’ with the difference that Current’s repetitions create an energetic range of textures.

The opening texture is like a high frequency shimmering voiced by a tremolo up on Scott St. John’s first violin accompanied by a low hum from Chris Costanza’s cello. The effect is like an ensemble tuning.  The shimmering develops into a more distinct utterance, like a murmuring across which the cello draws a sequence of abrupt, harsh, two note phrases—dark strokes with a wide brush across a newspaper collage. This texture develops further into the full ensemble complexity of a four part round. The momentum is suspended for a moment, and then the next round begins out of a shimmering.

There are four repetitions of this pattern, each time uttering new textures, short and fleeting, long and waving—like the pulsation of Philip Glass’s koyaanisqatsi—locomotive choo-choos, whistling cello glissandos, ghostly twitterings, rustling of irritated tree spirits exacerbated to a rapid, forte crescendo and false ending, from which the piece rouses itself again to a knock-out finish.

For two other pieces on the program, the Quartet were joined by two founding members, Cellist Marina Hoover and Violist Barry Shiffman, and played two sextets, Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht (1899) and Dvorak’s Sextet in A, Op.48 (1878). Whether it’s Quartet or Sextet, whether it’s Schoenberg’s chromatic, sometimes muted and sometimes dissonant melodrama, or the abundance of dancing melodies of Dvorak’s bewitching  Opus 48, the music is animated by a tonal richness, distinctly articulated and bouyed by a passion that is the trademark of the St. Lawrence String Quartet.