Scharoun Ensemble @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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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