Archive for February, 2011

Anne Sofie von Otter and Brad Mehldau @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

When Anne Sofie von Otter sings, I get romantic. I hear in her voice echoes of instrumental silver, gold, platinum, and an occasional touch of brass; the warm-toned resonance of rosewood, the purity of  maple and alpine spruce. The present-day Swedish nightingale (her namesake, Jenny Lind, was adored by Hans Christian Andersen) has a reassuring, regal stage-presence. From there she transmits, by the merest tilt of her head or wave of her hand, the ripeness of her knowing about the dream-laden love song she is singing. Her highest notes (like those of Callas) are honed to a watered-steel edge so fine it can slide under the shadow of a memory and set it afloat like a windborne petal.

Brad Mehldau brings a two-handed intelligence and light touch on the keyboard to this collaboration. His melodic lines can dance with delicacy, and if needed, with a surging passion, and they can sing, often in the two distinct voices of his right and left hands. Every song gets his full conviction and emotional commitment, be it the slow, dark, chromatic chords of Brahms’ “Unbewegte laue Luft Op. 57″, that descends into a space of deep rest, or the flowing lyric passion of the “Op. 80” solo piano piece that Mehldau uplifts into a hymnic utterance.  The best thing I can say about the von Otter/Mehldau collaboration popped into my mind as they were doing “Die Nacht” by Richard Strauss. It’s a “hurting” song with a bluesy feeling coming from the piano, and I thought of Teddy Wilson at the keyboard with Billie Holiday.

The show they are touring with is based on their new double disc album Love Songs. In the first half we get 13 songs from Disc 1: Norwegian songs by Edvard Grieg, Swedish songs  by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Wilhelm Stenhammer, Finnish songs by Jan Sibelius, German songs by Brahms and Richard Strauss. The von Otter/Mehldau collaboration with this music, as I’ve noticed above, was gorgeous, but…being lost in translation takes some of the fun out of it.

After intermission there was linguistic relief offered by material from Disc 2, starting with the 5 songs Mehldau wrote based on poems by Sara Teasdale: these attracted him because they were rhythmic, simple, clear in meaning, and vitally female. “Child, child, love while you can,” is interesting because of the dire, tolling ostinato of discordant chords. “Twilight,” is a forlorn and powerful song with a dissonant melody that von Otter sings across chromatic piano chords. Her singing of the slow dripping, long, melodic lines of the ballad “Oh, because you never tried/To bow my will or break my pride” created a high devotional mood. “Dreams,” is a song about violent sexual feeling that Ms. von Otter recites in unbroken lines of sound across the piano’s endless trilling.

Once this interesting but ‘serious’ work was over, everything relaxed and the fun really began with songs by Joni Mitchell (“Michael from the Mountains,” and “Marcie”), Jacques Brel (“Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”), Michel Legrand (“The Windmills of my Mind”), Paul McCartney (“Blackbird”),  and “Walkin’ my Baby Back Home” (a 1931 hit written by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert that Ms. von Otter sang in Swedish).  Mehldau got to show a few edges of his legendary jazz improv skills. Ms. von Otter radiated an easy good humour as she made every song her own, except the “Walkin’ My Baby” which still belongs to Nat King Cole.

Here’s my bottom line. Two masters take us along on their adventure into new musical territory. The feeling when it’s over is that it is all good.

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Debussy String Quartet @ Mooredale Concerts reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011. Walter Hall, Toronto.

The Debussy String Quartet put a new shine on a couple of chamber repertory chestnuts, and raised the roof with their namesake’s only string quartet.

The mournful melody that opens Puccini’s Crisantemi revealed a poignant sweetness as Fabrice Bihan’s cello unrolled the dark harmonic ground over which the other strings in unison streamed. The second of two melodies to survive in this sole movement of Puccini’s otherwise forgotten string quartet was developed with exceptional intonation by leader Christophe Collette, and smoothly integrated beside the richly coloured ostinato in Dorian Lamotte’s 2nd violin and Vincent Deprecq’s viola.

Alexander Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D major is romantically lyrical to a fault. Through a fault not necessarily Borodin’s, one cannot listen to the second and third movements without intoning the lyrics of the 1953 musical Kismet’s two hit tunes:”Baubles, Bangles & Beads,” and “And This Is My Beloved.” These unfortunate associations notwithstanding, the Debussy players brought a redeeming elegance and tonal colour to the work as a whole. They took advantage of chromatic possibilities in the lively fourth movement to put a needed touch of lemon to the honeyed melodies.

The Borodin and Puccini pieces are from the start nice work in a traditional line. Debussy’s  String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, though classic in form, broke new sonic ground in 1893, and as this Quartet plays it, still sounds new.  There is brilliance in the rhythmically complex and melodically convoluted germinal theme, and there is audacity in running it through all four movements. By keeping this single idea in the listener’s mind, Debussy has a basis on which to focus his Protean ability of transformation—variation in rhythm, meter, tempo,texture, tone, mood, mode and instrumentation.

Listening to this performance I had the feeling of witnessing the solid shapes and colours of a landscape break down as if light reflected from solid surfaces were to behave like light reflecting off water flowing in sunlight.  Images diffuse in sprays of refracted colour, fracture fractally and regroup in psychedelically patterned zigzag crenellations of a migraine aura or epileptic seizure or the mystical visions of Hildegard of Bingen. The landscapes of Seurat and Pissaro come to mind, where shapes melt down to colour and colour begins to dance as points of light.

Debussy’s musical phrases arise and fall off; lines of conversation are interrupted, change direction, dissolve into vibrations, accelerate into whirlpools of energy that subside back into lovely, lyrical phrases that haunt by being repeated and merge eventually into long melodic lines that promise a pastoral  peace. Debussy’s music is quite fearless, and cheerful in a Gallic way, and this Quartet that bears his name carries it well.

Trio Voce @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011. Jane Mallet Theatre, Toronto.

The star-studded Trio Voce performed a work by Shostakovich from their recent Con Brio recording and  a new piece written for them by Jonathan Berger who last appeared at Music Toronto in March of 2007, when he introduced a Tears in Your Hand—commissioned by The Gryphon Trio. Berger is part of a team at Stanford University that explores the neuroscience of music.

Last night he introduced Memory Slips (2010), a composition in four movements inspired by the auditory hallucinations Berger annotated from the nameless, recurrent melodic fragments his late mother sang as she lay dying.  The core of the first movement, built around the idea of flash recall of emotional memory, is the sentimental tune “Cruising Down The River,” #1 on the ‘Hit Parade’ of 1948, the birth year of Mrs. Berger’s first born son, the composer’s older brother.

Around this lovely core melody ornamented with Yiddish musical motifs, are disjointed and often harsh fragments—sonic references to dislocated memories. Pizzicato cello and violin lines flicked out fast over punchy piano chords accelerate to the frequency of fly-buzz, decay into the featureless ringing of tinnitus, resurrect into string squeaks, rise in the cello towards an urgent dramatic melody that softens as it emerges, ‘cruising’ sweet and sentimental before flowing back to the opening figures and the close.

Berger entitles his second movement “leanan sidhe” referring to a being the poet Yeats described as ” the Dark Muse, an artistic succubus, giving creative gifts in exchange for the artist’s life.” The Gaelic melody begins low in cello (Marina Hoover) and piano (Patricia Tao) and a piercing high whistle in Jasmine Lin’s violin. This broadens into a dirge proceeding richly in the strings to the tolling of an ostinato piano. The third movement is devoted to unuttered memories that get stuck on ‘the tip of the tongue. It is lively, fast, percussive, with frequent changes in tempo and jazzy rhythms—repetitive, obstinato riffs—possibly referencing an obsessive quality that marks the onset of dementia—unfinished phrases that finally just fade away.

The final movement is entitled “Ear Worms” in reference to music that repeats compulsively within one’s mind—music stuck in one’s head”—an affliction that pained his mother. The music here is often dissonant, discordant, sour. Piano and violin melodies are often totally out of tempo. The music builds tension that gradually thins out to spooky, creepy, spacey, sad and finally attenuates to nothing.

Trio Voce’s performance of the Berger impressed with individual virtuosity and balanced expression of the ensemble. Their rendering of Piano Trio No.1, Op. 8,  a student work by Shostakovich not published till after the composer’s death, but wonderful, lacked vitality, especially in comparison to the account by The Gryphon Trio. Patricia Tao’s piano was too far back in the mix, too soft around the edges. Admittedly, it was the piece Trio Voce opened with and warmed up on. Their soft-edged, slow-paced approach to Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 5 in D major, Op. 70, No. 1, dubbed “The Ghost,” achieved a lyrical quality and brought out the ‘positive’ side of that conflicted work. I especially enjoyed the recapitulation of the finale where the instruments totally get down and talk to each other.

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Amici Ensemble:From Vienna to Prague reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011. CBC Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.

Martinu’s Duo for Violin and Cello (1927) is an arresting virtuoso piece. The opening canon is a modal motif led by the cello in high register followed by the violin playing low. This kind of contrast is developed continuously as lyrical melodies clash with gritty, double-stopped dissonances; counterpoint of Baroque sprung rhythms vie with romantic harmonies that are succeeded by melancholy reflections, and duets where the violin screams lines over the cello’s obsessive tremolo.

The second movement Rondo takes off, con brio, in a swirl of motion.  Themes are handed back and forth between the players. David Hetherington executes a virtuosic cadenza that Yonathan Berick takes up for a few measures before they give the rapid-fire opening theme a swirl or two and close the piece. A delightful work, full of surprises, played with a real sense of life.

Quintet in D Major Op. 42 for piano, violin, clarinet, horn and cello (1893) by Zdenek Fibich is remarkable for its gorgeous tone colours. Neil Deland’s horn suggests the depths of forest during the idyllic pastoral that unfolds from the forceful opening. Serouj Kradjian’s keyboard opens an interlude of  ‘Romantic’, Lisztian passion. The rich texture waxes flamboyant, then drifts away to a perfectly timed conclusion.

The second movement extends the sense of Germanic arcadian idyll to a kind of steppe or prairie setting that becomes the locale for a celebration of rhapsodic emotion.  The part writing is intriguing and the harmonies are beautiful. Fibich was the first composer to include the polka in a chamber work, and its energy can be heard in the second ‘Trio’ of the “Scherzo” that is filled with dancy folk motifs. The final movement is symphonic in texture and bouncily festive in tone.

Sarah Jeffrey, oboe, and Michael Sweeney, bassoon sat in for Mozart’s Quintet in E flat major, K. 452 for piano and winds (1784).  It is full of sweetness and laughter, drama and the sound of voices raised in song. The parts go their rounds rising and falling like a coloured horses on a carousel carrying on their backs delighted children with intelligent faces.

The Amici Ensemble’s Atma*Naxos CD Armenian Chamber Music has been nominated in Juno’s Classical Album of the Year: Solo or Chamber Ensemble.

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Darrett Zusko Recital @ WMCT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011. Walter Hall, Toronto.

Darrett Zusko has an impressive technique. He tested it successfully this afternoon against the merciless complexities of three Études by Franz Liszt.  Mr. Zusko’s playing of Schumann’s 30 minute Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, showed his  stamina, and that he has something to say about the Romantic style of passion.

Mr. Zusko’s approach to Schumann’s opening phrase, known as ‘Clara’s theme,’ showed strong left hand colouring in the rolling five-note descends. He kept a nicely contrasting lighter touch in the right hand melodic accompaniment. The development of this first movement, which owes much to Beethoven, is flamboyant in its display of passion—melancholy brooding rises in lyrical flights and flares out in torrid declarations.

There is much melodrama in the arpeggiated chords of the second movement, a childlike innocence in some of the ¾ rhythms and a feeling of improvisation that I enjoyed very much. I also noted with pleasure the daring of his long sustained closing notes and prolonged rests.

In the second half of the program, Mr. Zusko occupied himself with the atmospheric poetry of Liszt.  This genre, which Lizst loved to occupy himself with, doesn’t appear to have the profundity of passionate feeling. Its artistic virtue is like the Indian ‘Raga’ whose dignity comes from aligning with the life of  certain times of day, moods or atmospheres of the natural world.

The first piece, “The Play of Water at the Villa D’Este,” from Op. S.163, displays the poetry of water in fountains: the trilling, rolling, racing waters make much demand on the right hand. From Transcendental Études, Op. S. 139, Mr. Zusko played three selections, all beautifully melodic and touching.

“Ricordanza” is an elegy, delicate and lyrical in its meditation on beauty that fades. “Evening Harmonies,” allows for lyrical flights, warm colourings, boldly darkened harmonies that swell, separate into counter-themes, and come together again like a flight of swallows. “Appassionata” is in a minor key. It is a bit obsessive and becomes very agitated, but what it shows is Mr. Zusko’s ability to define the structure of a drama.

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Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Saturday, February 5, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

In a peerless performance, who can tell the musicians from the music?

Kavakos is among the top ‘live-wire’ violinists in the world. Enrico Pace, though less renowned, was able to match his piano’s intonations to the virtuosic violin, and flawlessly maintained the rhythmic space in which this evening’s music sang and danced.

The duo’s first offering was Prokofiev’s “wind howling in a cemetery” Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 80, the fruit of the composer’s eight year struggle to cope with the sonorities of violin and piano. The opening walking piano line underpins the violin’s grating scratch, then moves in imitation through a patch of dark chords towards a conclusion that sounds like the footfalls of a solitary nightwalker whispering paranoid speculations to himself.

Out of this, in the three following movements, a narrative develops that is part Hans Christian Anderson lyricism that enviegles itself straight into your heart, and part the satire of a Brecht/Weill opera salted with gestures in the direction of Shostakovich and his madcap refusals to be silenced. The Finale, initially fleet and light-fingered, develops an fff ferocity that subsides into a sad, lyric, lament.

The mantle of Shostakovich, Schnittke and Kancheli has fallen on the beautiful shoulders of Lera Auerbach. The Kavakos/Pace performance of  selections from her 24 Preludes for Violin and Piano (1999) came across like a essay on the nature of time. In the first “Prelude in C major,” the piano’s one note ostinato drips like a series of discrete moments through which the continuous vibration of the violin’s insanely rising scale steadily streams. “Prelude No. 18 in F minor” moves into a romantic, lyric mood:out of the bell-tone of the piano the anguished violin declaims a melodrama that carries dissonance to the edge of tonality.

Between the keystrokes of Pace and Kavakos’ line (extenuated to a fineness just this side of a whisper) develops a tension that speaks of ‘waiting’: waiting for the next tone to come, waiting for a tone to fade out, waiting for a line to reach the breaking point, waiting to hear for ‘whom the bell tolls.’ The work concludes with a traditional meditation in Bachean counterpoint following which Pace’s piano wires seem to transform from metal to glass and Kavakos brushes his bow ever more lightly to whisper a tone so ethereal it “teases us out of thought.”

Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata after intermission arrived like a rich port following an exotic meal. The performance surprised with its Mozartean lightness.

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