Archive for March, 2011

Marc-André Hamelin Concert at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Marc-André Hamelin’s picture of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No.53 in E minor, Hob.XVI:34 is like a platinum print with strong blacks, delicate, clear whites, the grayscale tones all present but vividly separated.  Hamelin plays the slow movement with remarkable intimacy, as if he were the composer picking out an improvised melody, lingering on a note, pausing after an interval, and generally getting into a peaceful, easy feeling. He dovetails into the  quick and delicate Scherzo, ramping up the dynamics and following with awesome decelerandos. You can just see those little Meissen figurines rotating on their wind-up bases.

Schumann’s 21 part piano cycle, Carnaval, opens with a combination of triple forte bass chords, Bam-Bam-Bam, and a slow curve that signals the bipolar span of the composer’s musical associations. These associations include portraits of Schumann’s two girlfriends (Ernestine and Clara), Commedia dell’arte characters (Pierrot, Harlequin), fellow composers like Chopin and Paganini, Schumann’s alter-egos (Eusebius and Florestan), and a biblical ‘League’ of imaginary friends. Hamelin’s playing bring this material to life on the stage of imagination.

The apparent potpourri of Carnaval’s one-minute compositions is held together by a four-note motif and the irresistible flavours of street music that look back to the bell canto of Bellini and forward to the rags of Scott Joplin and William Bolcom, the salon music of Paolo Tosti, and the music-hall operas of Kurt Weill. Schumann’s rich mix enchants and fascinates as Hamelin makes it skylark to lyrical heights and march in grotesque parades of figures whose skulls grin out beneath the flesh.

After intermission Stefan Wolpe’s Passacaglia Op. 23 (1936/1971) showed Hamelin’s comfort with barely melodic atonal advanced serial technique writing. These variations on 11 all-interval basic rows over a bass ostinato sample the chaos that lives on the borders of order: it takes a lot of listening to feel the inherent musical unity. Hamelin’s fearless account opened that door.

The two concluding works were sublimely melodic, one serene and the other tempestuous: together they underlined the unity of Hamelin’s well-crafted program. Gabriel Fauré’s Nocturne No.6 in D-flat Op. 63 (1894) has a straight-forward argument in four parts. The first is a wistfully coloured line of melancholy tones that flows easily into the second part’s bucolic mood like a Jean Renoir film with Edith Piaf singing “When the World was Young.” The third part is an even more flowing Debussyesque 10-note arpeggio that ripples into a concluding song that recalls Paulo Tosti’s Pierrot singing of “How many tears it takes to make a gay Pierrot.”

Hamelin includes a nod to Franz Liszt’s bicentenary with Réminiscences de Norma, S. 394 (1841). These are seven arias from Bellini’s opera Norma (1831) that Liszt arranged as an elaborate fantasie for solo piano. The music is grandly, deeply, melodramatic and embellished with advanced techniques that Hamelin handles with a care for the beauty and correctness of tone.  It’s always nice when a performance is so powerful the audience is compelled to curb its enthusiasm to applaud for a respectful interval. That’s what happened, and then the audience let loose, long and strong, and earned two encores.

The War of the Worlds is presented in association with Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage.
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John Williams in Concert at Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Listening to John Williams play the music of Villa Lobos with his guitar pressed to his heart is like roaming the halls of Versailles: one becomes part of the magnificence.

Williams plays the opening notes of 5 Preludios, A.419 with just the sprinkling of vibrato he needs to show his personal emotion and his control. His technical perfection appears in the living sound of his Smallman guitar whose richness and delicacy of tone he never mars with string-slides. Williams moves without apparent effort along enchanting melodic lines, through the blinding arpeggios of the second Preludio, down the slower, darker progressions of the  third into the dramatic fourth that balances the dark bass notes from his thumb against the fingers’ crystalline harmonics and finely graded glissandos.

Following this rich, Romantic, canvas, Williams sketches a Chaconne by François Couperin that proceeds at a dignified pace like the train of a veiled doncella flowing over marble stairs. Three portraits from El decameron negro by the modern Cuban  Leo Brower (b. 1939–) come next. “El…guerrero [the warrior]” is executed with cross-hatched strokes, dense amelodic runs, swellings and broad textured swaths of sound. The dramatic melody of “La hueda de los amantess…[flight of lovers]” moves against a slow, chromatic ostinato baseline, and disintegrates into flights of arpeggiated figures and blinding flurries of voices that call out to each other. The third portrait, of a lady in love, sensuous, languid and energetic by nature, sings through the guitar’s voice about the rich, unutterable complexity of feeling that possesses her.

The program after intermission was even more personal. Williams offered some anecdotes of his late friend, the African guitarist Francis Bebey, three songs from a self-produced album of Williams’ own compositions From a Bird, and a tribute to Bebe. Attractive, colourful music, rhythmic, complex in structure and playfully virtuosic.

Williams devoted the rest of the set to seven short compositions by Agustin Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944), the Paraguayan composer whom Williams continues to champion as the outstanding guitarist/composer of his time. Barrios’ music reflects the strength of the classics: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, live in his pieces for guitar. Williams executes La Cathedral, Julia Florida, a pair of waltzes and Un sueño en la floresta with impressive displays of musicality as his thumb picks out arpeggio patterns and his fingers make waves of repeated notes that roll like a silken standard in the wind.

In his seventieth year, John Williams continues to be the “foremost ambassador of the guitar”. He is faster than ever in his fingerwork and unhindered in his way of joining dignity and enthusiasm in his playing. I would love a second close encounter in this setting with this John Williams next year.

Jane Coop Mooredale Concert reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

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

Jane Coop is without hesitation. She sits down and without a pause begins playing Beethoven’s charming Sonata in E major, Op. 14.1. Her phrasings in the lively opening theme are deftly carved and smoothly tapered, bringing out the flow of melody and the gnarly turns of the chords her left hand repeats. There is a nervous energy to her playing which produces highly contrasted dynamics, crisp, brightly coloured, somewhat hard-edged lines and colours. The Scherzo that follows functions as a slow movement, but Ms. Coop maintains a tense high-contrast mood that she relaxes towards the end, but resumes again in the final Rondo Allegro.

Her account of Beethoven’s 15 (Eroica) Variations and Fugue in Eb major, Op. 35 is interesting. Ms. Coop’s ‘Introduction’ is exploratory, as if she is curious about how this thing works. The first variation is faster in tempo: she plays it freely and quite forcefully—in the high-contrast manner of the earlier Sonata. Towards the middle of the work, the variations soften—seeming romantic in the way of young love, and from there develop, through highly chromatic passages, a wistful, almost melancholic absorption. The concluding Fugue restores her idea of Beethoven’s dominant, controlling energy.

Ms. Coop’s Scriabin, in this recital, is very different from her Beethoven. Scriabin’s music has a heavy obsessive, ‘ostinato’ element, to which it seems Ms. Coop responds by relaxing into a delicate lyricism that becomes almost impressionistic in the second Etude, though nervous tension and contrast reappear in the third.

She keeps Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3 in F# minor, Op. 23 surprisingly and pleasingly in the middle of her dynamic range, soft pedaling the two-note descending left hand figure on which the entire work is threaded. There is a dire force in the second movement that she drives down into a open, spacey area where it is allowed to float. The third movement is her best, with some lovely summery musings that flow seamlessly into the return of the obsessive ostinato  that thunders darkly as the work slides presto towards the Finale’s abrupt end.

There is a consistent thread of intelligence in Ms. Coop’s reading of Beethoven and Scriabin that she maintained in the gentle Chopin Mazurka of her encore.

2011 Juno Award Nominationed CDs: a Selection by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011.

The Juno’s are coming this weekend. Here are a few of my words in support of win-worthy CD’s.

Armenian culture should have as many words for sadness as the Inuit people have words for snow. The sadness I am speaking of is not depression, but more like sensitivity keyed-down to a mood of  tender reflection. The Amici Ensemble, inspired by it’s newest member, pianist Serouj Kradjian, put their impeccable musicianship behind this offering of Armenian music that plays directly to our spiritual part. One track—Arno Babadjanyan’s, Trio for voice, clarinet and four cellos, sings to us in the celestial voice of mezzo-soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. All the nominated albums in the CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: SOLO OR CHAMBER ENSEMBLE are totally worthy, but I am putting my shoulder to the wheel for Armenian Chamber Music (Atma Classique  #: 2609 ).

Playground is Mark McLean’s 40th record since his professional debut in 1998, but his first as leader. I have listened to this album at least seven (7) times, all the way through, while driving my car, for the pleasure of its company. Playground is a beautifully produced album, not just a playlist. Mark’s sure-handed drumming always sets the pace. Kelly Jefferson’s mellow-rich-cool, Coltrane-toned sax leads the way for the first few tunes. Then David Braid’s crisp piano picks up the pace and lets in some funk. On that note the non-funkier-than guitar of guest Kevin Breit takes the album to a whole new level. And it goes on from there, adding Robi Botos on piano to the mix of tuneful, richly embroidered, and tasteful jazz, solid and totally today. I have to wonder why Playground didn’t get a nomination (independent label?) for INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR.  It should have.

My first nomination for next year’s (2012) CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: SOLO OR CHAMBER ENSEMBLE is guitarist Sylvie Proulx’s Sirocco.  The music is contemporary, with an affinity for Spanish, Afro-Cuban and Brazillian music, flavoured with  jazz and folk traditions from Euopean Baroque, Turkey and North Africa. Ms. Proulx’s technique and musicality are a joy to experience. Sirocco is on the Centaur Records label.

Speaking of guitar music in the category of music that stays in the mind irrespective of the Junos of this or any other year, there is IMAGES – Rob MacDonald (Guitar), Madawaska String Quartet, Peter Pavlovsky (Double Bass). The piece that stays in the mind is a percussive piece entitled Full Circle, written for solo guitar by Andrew Staniland. Images is a Rob MacDonald all-Canadian New Music composers project including Nocturne, for guitar, viola and cello by Omar Daniel, Love Song, a string sextet for guitar, double bass and string quartet by Peter Sculthorpe, and the title work Images for guitar and string quartet, composed in 2005 by Christopher William Pierce. This is a daring album, and if there were an award for MOST DARING ALBUM, Rob MacDonald would certainly deserve a nomination. Right now, the best I can do is this plug. Learn more about Images which is available at The Canadian Music Centre.

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Scharoun Ensemble @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, March 12th, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Sonic alert: A performance by eight chairs of the Berliner Philharmoniker, arguably the world’s best orchestra. What do you get? Total relaxation and thrilling alerts. The tutti chords that open Mozart’s exquisite Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major, K. 581 are transparent, but you can hear the viola as if it were playing solo. You might be surprised to notice in the scherzo of Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Opus 20, that the colour-tones of the first violin and the bassoon are identical. You may never have heard winds played so softly as they do in a passage towards the end of the Septet.  In general, what you get with this ensemble are complex harmonies articulated as clearly as anatomical drawings of nerves pulsing beneath a satiny skin.

The program is lighthearted music that has always been popular.  Beethoven had occasion to remark that his Septet’s popularity eclipsed what he estimated were his more deserving compositions. The lilting themes and rhythmic poetry of Dvorak’s Czech Suite  in D Major, Op. 39 are formed into a sequence of popular dances (including a ‘Polka’ and a ‘Mazurka’). Dvorak based the Suite  on classic Bohemian folk songs, of which the composer Leon Janåcek has said “(they) were as if he had taken them from my heart.”

The Clarinet Quintet in A, one of Mozart’s most popular chamber works, has the same golden glow and mellow warmth as his opera Cosi fan tutte, commissioned in the same year, 1789, by Emperor Joseph II. Mozart intended his cast of five instruments to sing like vocalists as they flow with a sure sense of drama through what amount to solo arias, duets, dances and choruses. And the Scharoun make it so.

Popular  music, lighthearted music, means the music relaxes you rather than it puts you into a state of high alert for plumbing depths or gathering nuances. With an ensemble of the quality we experienced this evening,  you can just lay back, and the fine discriminations come along by themselves like invited guests. For example, in 50 years of listening to the The Clarinet Quintet in A, last night, during the larghetto,  was the first and only time I felt as if I were lifted out of my body. That was pretty fine.

It remains only to note some passages of astonishing solo work: Aleksandr Ivic’s cadenza in the finale of the Mozart;  Markus Weidmann’s bassoon in the 2nd movement of the Dvorak; Stefan De Leval Jezierski’s horn in the third movement of the Beethoven creating a stereoscopic perspective of distance; and Alexander Bader’s clarinet, so obviously perfect in the Mozart, also thrilled in fleeting duets with bassoon and with Peter Riegelbauer’s double bass in the opening dances of the Dvorak. In this particular work, the Scharoun Ensemble as a whole brought to me a unique impression of all nature singing in chorus.

One more instrument that performs sonic marvels needs to be mentioned: Koerner Hall. A few weeks ago, Ann Sofie von Otter told us we were lucky people to have such a hall. Too right! And this evening, if we ever needed a repeat of the lesson that there is an unbridgeable gap between listening to music on the finest sound system and listening to it live, the Scharoon Ensemble in Koerner Hall made that lesson live.

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Hilary Hahn with Valentina Lisitsa @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

Tuesday, March 2, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Though she appears on stage like a Meissen figurine, the first stroke of Hilary Hahn’s bow tells you she is Samurai. Her timbre is fearless, her tremolo is natural as laughter or the waves in a watered-steel blade. It was one of those evenings when every expression was right, except the audience, that leaked applause in all the wrong places.

Miss Hahn’s collaboration with pianist Valentina Lisitsa started out with a lightweight, virtuoso piece: Fritz Kreisler’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli (in the style of Giuseppe Tartini). Ms. Lisitsa’s piano-work flowed behind the violin like a silver stream that reflects mountain, shadow, and clouds. Very satisfactory, at every point in the program. Together they established a sense of musicality that never flagged.

The pacing of their Beethoven Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 “Spring” was magical. The interplay of voices during the very brief scherzo was like a playful chase, with one just nosing ahead of the other or else falling behind. This was one point the audience, understandably, failed to contain their excitement.

The playfulness continued to charm throughout Charles Ives’ Violin Sonata No. 4, Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting, S.63. Ives (who stopped composing in 1927) was the first American composer who didn’t sound like anybody in Europe. In his work you can hear American pop music, church music (“Jesus Loves Me,” and “Yes, we shall gather at the River”). Ives plays around with these traditional materials, pushing tonality towards chromatic effects and beyond into dissonance, atonality, polytonality, polyrhythms, and chance elements we hardly hear again till John Cage. The Hahn/Lisitsa duo’s account brought out Ives’ eccentricities in a manner that was bold, lucid and fun.

After Intermission, Ms. Hahn performed J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1002. I can’t recall a more musical performance of this Bach. During the “Sarabande” the singing tone of Ms.Hahn’s violin was so pure— as if it were arising independent of the brush of hair on strings over vibrating wood, but was just the music of space.

George Antheil’s Violin Sonata No.1, W. 130 (1923) makes beautiful music out of ugly sounds: brutally plucked pizzicati over hammered piano chords, repetitive rhythmic ideas in the mechanical-futuristic style—ostinato snarls of rush-hour traffic,  the violin’s inarticulate scratching, piano chords like shattering glass. The second and third movements feature the music of a fishbowl—spooky piano, whistling ghostly violin, a pair of goldfish patrolling their circular, viscous confinement. The fourth movement of this ‘anti-musical’ sonata reprises the theme of the first movement and then noisily deconstructs it into a blend of rolling and scratching textures. The audience went wild.

Why? Because of Ms. Hahn’s almost insolent brilliance, her commanding tone, dynamic sensitivity, her ability to change the timbre of a note half-way through it while keeping the audience’s attention on the song of the long line, the shape of the whole piece. Whatever she played made musical sense, and wherever she led, Ms. Lisitsa followed like Yang and Yin in perfect harmony.