Archive for April, 2010

Janina Fialkowska Plays Music In the Afternoon reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, April 30th, 2010

April 29, Walter Hall, Toronto.

Janina Fialkowska’s strength at the keyboard is her ability to rest. When you appreciate the daring silences she allows between passages, you begin to understand how these rests enable her precisely placed tones to flow along finely modeled musical contours that express the beauty of the compositions she is interpreting for her audiences.

The Schumann portion of her recital was exciting particularly because of Fialkowska’s artistry in bringing out the highly polarized nature of the compositions. Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 begins with a boisterous figure that repeats and then shades down into a restful, poetic mood. The high spirits return frequently in the opening “Allegro”, once marching in a defiant “Marseillaise”, and once, mysteriously imbued with a singing quality that unaccountably reminded me of William Bolcom’s Ragtime compositions. The brief “Romanze” that follows is tender and reflective in character, resting between slow steps that lead into a  playful “Scherzino” that floats like the dance of a butterfly. The “Intermezzo” is emotional in a plaintive way, and the “Finale” is built out of high velocity runs that are modulated on a scale that includes loneliness as well as extraverted celebration.

Schumann describes the origin of his Humoreske, Op. 20 in a letter to Clara: “All week I sat at the piano composing, writing, laughing and crying, all at the same time.” The title indicates that the piece is about the flow of moods—humours—outbursts of passion, sweetly innocent passages, lyrical turns, eccentric twists, quick rhythmic shifts of texture. Fialkowska played with the music as if it were a mouse that she felt free to hold and release, pursue and suspend, until the “poignant and triumphant coda.”

Everyone knows or ought to know Fialkowska’s Chopin. The Polonaise in C-sharp Minor, Op.26, No.1 sounds the heroic note of the Polish patriot in exile pulsing with new harmonic energies. She follows The Waltz in A-flat Minor, Op.34, No.1  through a briar-patch of moods and tempi with a sensitive and fluid ease, while also bringing out the sparkle that attracted the title “Valse Brillante”.The Waltz in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 62, No.2, poses the question “What to make of a piece that is so well-know it is ‘over-familiar’?” Answer: Listen to the even tone of Fialkowska’s walking bass line. The trilling of nerves sing in Nocturne in B Major, Op.62, No.1. A study in texture and colour, the final melody is poetic, meaning it gives us a glimpse into a world beyond the ordinary.

The first of the recital’s two Preludes, the F-sharp Minor, Op. 28, No.8 is a work that Liszt describes as being “replete with enormous difficulties”. Nonetheless, Chopin’s rolling periods are woven into what seemed like a fantastic narrative discourse. The Prelude in A-flat that followed was a calmer composition with a gorgeous melody that appeared like the vehicle for a journey through a romantic landscape into a realm where a single bass note tolls what begins to sound like the penultimate hour. The Scherzo in B-flat Minor Op. 31, No.2 is built, like the first movement of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata in C Major, out of a brief, quirky high-pitched figure contrasted by an extended grand theme. One notices as the dramatic complexities unfold, that Fialkowska’s playing makes it easy to hear everything that is going on in the music.

The audience would not let Fialkowska rest until she offered an encore which she announced simply as—Chopin.

Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Saturday, April 24, Elgin, Toronto.

The Elgin Theatre refurbished to its plush and gilded elegance is the perfect setting for Opera Atelier’s picture perfect new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

The semi-transparent sound of the iconic stand-alone “Overture” performed by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, conducted at a stately pace by David Fallis, induces a Mozart state of mind in which the serio and comic moods seamlessly unscroll like  engravings round a timeless urn.

The curtain rises on a living tableau of dancers arranged as a porcelain china group with a commedia del’arte flair that—no surprise—reflects the style of characterization librettist da Ponte ‘analogised’ into the cast of this opera. What is a surprise, and a delightful one, is that as the opening tableau of dancers dissolves, and Figaro and Susannah appear to discuss measuring the set  labeled “THE BRIDAL SUITE”, they sing in English. Jeremy Sam’s  colloquial translation, sparkles with its own brilliant wordcraft allowing a whole new level of relaxation and fun.

Keep in mind that we are treated to 3 hours of Mozart’s greatest hits, performed in a set that Gerard Gauci designed to make the audience feel they are invited into “the atmosphere of a private performance taking place in the interior courtyard of a country residence.” Keep in mind, too, that the romantic characters are all young and beautiful, dressed by Martha Mann to display marmoreal contours of flesh above and below, front and back, while the problematic older generation of characters, Bartolo, Basilio, and Curzio are costumed and masked in ‘commedia’ style as if they were a monstrous race living among ‘us’. Let it also be said about this cast, that everyone can really act, and that they are brilliantly directed in both subtle and broad mannerisms that draw and hold the attention for the whole 3 hours.

The singing is generally photographically sharp and clear and punchy: you could understand every word, catch every vocal nuance. Carla Huhtanen’s Susanna comes across as a woman capable of taking charge of her newly emerging life—her voice reflecting a mental clarity with a particular feminine strength and the sense of humour she would surely continue to need. Oliver Laquerre has an ingenuous comic style that served him well in a previous Atelier production as Papageno. He is attractive as Figaro but doesn’t quite clarify the depths of the resources Figaro employs to survive and overcome the weight of his lord and master, Almaviva. Phillip Addis brings the same sort of strengths and style to his top dog role as Jonathan Rhys-Meyers brings to his role as Henry VIII in The Tudors. He is a young hot and heavy guy with more fire than weight, more bravado than brute authority. As such, his voice is clear, bright, vivid, pleasing but not so moving.

Peggy Kriha Dye has the voice that dominates this production. Her sound is thrilling. As the Countess who unaccountably has lost the affections of her once ardent husband, she is literally a-tremble with unhappiness, and the depth of her complaint  soars at every moment. Wallis Giunta’s Cherubino is mercurial, juicy and warm; Marcellina and Dr. Bartolo are well paired—Curtis Sullivan’s “La Vendetta” is impressive, Laura Pudwell’s Marcellina goes smoothly from rapacious to maternal and she manages by her bustling warmth to be an attractive monster. The Artists of the Atelier Ballet directed by Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg never fail to delight in the way the are used to seduce the modern mind into enjoying the beauty and charm of period balletic tableaux.

This is Mozart at his bubbly best that Opera Atelier plays with zest whirling us along from one operatic artifice to the next without losing a drop of drama. Go see it and catch the high.

Tokyo String Quartet Beethoven Series (#4 of 6) at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Thursday, April 8, 2010, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

The Tokyo String Quartet breathed life into Beethoven’s last three ‘Middle Quartets’ and made love to them. In the opening measures of Op.95 (the ‘Serioso’) they give us all the power and beauty of Beethoven’s mind condensed. They explode a sharply contoured opening phrase in unison : the individual voices heavily accented by agitation, rebound against each other, followed by —silence—a suspenseful, enigmatic pause. Clive Greensmith’s cello repeats the unison figure solo against a finely textured held chord by the ensemble, Martin Beaver’s first violin utters the first tender, plaintive phrase of the conversation which gets a rising arpeggio out of the cello, then Kazuhide Isomura’s viola  leads the ensemble to a forte repetition of the opening unison statement, followed by another abrupt halt.

In these few measures, the audience gets the gist of how Beethoven’s feelings—passion and sorrow, exaltation and despair—follow each other in quick, unpredictable, succession, and how he expresses the force and sensitivity of his inner drama without compromise. We also get here an encapsulated glimpse of what this Tokyo String Quartet can do working together, as if one great sculptor, to bring out the smooth planes, the sharp lines, the delicate curves, the detailed textures, and the polished tones of a Venus or a David. The result is hearing each piece of music—Op. 59.3, Op. 74 “The Harp”, and the aforementioned ‘Serioso’—animated by musicians in such perfect accord with the composer that we can ask, with the poet Yeats,” How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

Beethoven’s music of this period, around 1810, is black and blue: his “Immortal Beloved” had left him without explanation; the last vestiges of his hearing were literally being assaulted by the thunder of Napolean’s army during the conquest of Vienna; his hopes for some kind of normal family life were forever ruined. In the long night of despair Beethoven the man’s only protector was Beethoven the artist—“the splendour and joy of his genius, and the craving to excercise his creative power and to spend it recklessly,” as his friend Bettina Brentano wrote. You can literally hear the triumph of creative power as it resolves despair into a feeling of unity with all of life in the final movement of the ‘Serioso’. It is very pleasurable to hear amidst the original tones of Beethoven’s emergent maturity, charming echoes of Mozart in the ‘trio’ portion of Op. 59.3. This ensemble’s rendering of the pizzicato portions of Op. 74’s “Allegro” (that give it the nickname “Harp”), is stunning in it’s virtuosity, particularly the crystalline tones of Kikuei Ikeda’s second violin, which also sometimes tickles the tearful flow of the “Adagio”.

Beethoven’s three-in-the-morning blacks, blues, and moods indigo, the splendorous rose tones of the dawn, and every colour of the rainbow pour out of the famous four Stradivarius instruments in the hands of this impeccable ensemble. When they come back to Music Toronto in 2011, The Tokyo String Quartet will give two concerts of Beethoven’s later period quartets that will complete their recording project with Harmonia Mundi.