The Double

 Events, Performances, Side-by-side comparisons  Comments Off on The Double
Feb 052013
 

Double_sens 512Recently I heard the Brahms Piano Sonata #3 in f minor, Op. 5 twice in the same week. The contrast between the two performances and between the general atmosphere in the two concert halls could not have been more stark.

On Wed. Jan 30, 2013 Yefim Bronfman led off with the Brahms Sonata in his recital at Disney Hall. At the end of the first movement someone in the Orchestra section of the already restive audience broke into a coughing fit. Bronfman paused for a moment without looking up from the piano but then turned towards the audience when the coughing did not stop. The audience misread Bronfman’s gesture as a “pause for applause” and delivered a response that was widespread but desultory. This pattern of unenthusiastic applause repeated itself after every inner movement even though Bronfman never again looked up from the piano. I thought the audience should have expressed a lack of enthusiasm at the end of the piece also, as such a response would have been more in keeping with Bronfman’s thoroughly perfunctory performance, but the technically formidable last movement inspired the predictable outburst.

Two days later I heard John Perry, Professor of Piano at the Colburn Conservatory of Music and also at USC’s Thornton School of Music, play the same Brahms Sonata in a Faculty Recital in Zipper Hall at the Colburn School, diagonally across the street from Disney Hall.

Everything about this recital was inspiring. The audience included many past and present students of Prof. Perry, faculty members from the Colburn School, and music teachers from all over Los Angeles. The audience was wildly enthusiastic, particularly at the end of the concert, when they only grudgingly let Prof. Perry make his final exit. Between the movements of each piece – silence – which I take as an endorsement of what the performers in the audience would want for their own recitals. Prof. Perry played the Brahms with a rare combination of musicality and insight; the Andante espressivo was model of balance between patience, as he generously let the sonorities sink in, and forward motion.

It’s hard for me to confine myself to the Brahms. It was a privilege to hear Prof. Perry play Ondine from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit as an encore. As a technical display this piece can be quite boring; in Prof. Perry’s hands Ravel’s imagination for sound and structure came alive.

This memorable concert is another example of the excellent music making that can be heard in Los Angeles outside of the major venues. I have already mentioned the Southern California Junior Bach Festival in another post. I would also recommend the Events calendar of the Colburn School at www.colburnschool.edu; in addition to the Faculty Recitals they offer an excellent Chamber Music Series as well as other concerts throughout the year.

Breakout

 Performances  Comments Off on Breakout
Sep 172012
 

512px-Alcatraz_Island_-_prison_cellsRecently in the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall I watched a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 with Andris Nelsons as the guest conductor. The way that Stefan Dohr, the Principal Horn, played the solo at the beginning of the second movement changed the way I think about Tchaikovsky.

The Digital Concert Hall (www.digital-concert-hall.com) is a fee-based subscription service for access to internet broadcasts of live events as well as an on-demand archive. The archive includes numerous broadcasts of the orchestra with Simon Rattle, the current conductor, various guest conductors and soloists, and also of Claudio Abbado, the previous conductor. At about $185 per year the cost is similar to a single evening out for two at Disney Hall and with a little bit of technology you can display the internet broadcasts on your big-screen TV.

It’s interesting to hear conductors other than Simon Rattle direct the Berlin Philharmonic. In the first movement of the Tchaikovsky I thought Nelsons was struggling to make sense of the score but then, in the horn solo after the introduction to the second movement by the strings, magic happened.

Stefan Dohr immediately brought the piece to life with his subdued statement of the main theme, which he drew out of the horn in the supplest way imaginable.  A virtuoso performance in the best sense of the word, maintained throughout the dialog between the horn and the clarinet, then the oboe, with the collaboration of Principal Clarinet Wenzel Fuchs and Principal Oboe Jonathan Kelley.

Now you may listen to this same performance and think it’s just another horn solo. But somewhere, sometime, with some piece, you’ll hear someone with a level of imagination for sound that just might cause you to reevaluate the piece, the composer, your own prejudices.

The Tchaikovsky 5th is the very definition of a “war horse” and without Dohr’s solo the piece would have faded again into the background. But what he gave us was both liberating and sobering: liberating because it made me wonder how many other moments in Tchaikovsky could be brought to life, and sobering because it was a reminder of our limitations.

Recently a friend mentioned that she’d been to a concert where a contemporary composer questioned why we continue to perform the same pieces by Beethoven over and over. Without thinking I responded: “because we can’t ever get them right” – but with a master like Stefan Dohr we sometimes get to hear what a piece can sound like when it is done “right”.

Fugue falling down stairs

 Performances, The sonic landscape  Comments Off on Fugue falling down stairs
Aug 052012
 

 

The spaciousness of Glenn Gould’s performance of the Andante from Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7 (see the previous Post) brings to mind Artur Schnabel’s performance of the Adagio of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, Op. 106. (Artur Schnabel – Beethoven Op. 106 at 11:30).

Schnabel plays the Adagio in a way that is consistent with the revolutionary and forward-looking nature of the entire piece and with his reading of the outer movements. It’s well known that Schnabel insisted on playing the first movement according to Beethoven’s metronome marking; in his headlong assault not only does he avoid the ponderousness that drains the movement of energy at a slower tempo, he captures the qualities of urgency and abandon that Beethoven put into this movement.

In the Adagio Schnabel is particularly sensitive to registration; when the outer voices are widely separated he adjusts the balance so that both are always clearly heard. Extreme separation is a characteristic of this movement and a new way of deploying sound; the sheer spaciousness gives the movement an abstract quality and is one of Beethoven’s revolutionary additions to the sonic landscape.

When it comes to the fugue of the Hammerklavier (which starts at 32:09 in the YouTube performance) it is a commonplace to criticize Schnabel’s playing with mock or real horror. But I believe that his playing is defensible in the context of his approach to the entire piece. Schnabel apprehended Beethoven’s Expressionistic rendering of a fugue and played it as such. The bold smearing of contrapuntal motives is completely in keeping with Beethoven’s dissonant and free adaptation of the fugal form in this movement, which he marks modestly as “Fuga a tre voci, con alcune licenze”, “with some license”.

I don’t want to make too much a point of this but the fact that Schnabel was active during the time of the major movements in early 20th century art, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, must have prepared him to hear and play the extremes that Beethoven put into Op. 106.

Against this backdrop, but in view of the fact that Schnabel really does drop a lot of notes and in deference to the measured pace of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.”, perhaps it’s more fitting to think of Schnabel’s version of the last movement of the Hammerklavier as “Fugue falling down stairs”.

Taking comfort in mediocre performances

 Performances  Comments Off on Taking comfort in mediocre performances
Jul 212012
 

Los Angeles: summer to summer

Summer is the time for looking back at the disappointments and surprises of the concert season in Los Angeles. In taking stock every year I always recall the remarks that the pianist Artur Schnabel made in his book Music and the Line of Most Resistance : “the majority of performances will be about halfway between” the extremes of “high eminence” and “insufficiency” and, he continues, “fairly similar to each other. Lack of vitality, eloquence and plasticity tend to assimilate uninspired accomplishments . . . “ When I think back on the amount of time I have spent daydreaming or being otherwise distracted during concerts I have always found these remarks to be more comforting than disheartening. It just has to be like this.

Disappointment came early last summer in two of the concerts given by Southwest Chamber Music at the Huntington Library, where the Loggia of the main gallery is an outstanding venue for chamber music with surprisingly good acoustics throughout the entire space. Among other pieces I heard a number of chamber works by Mozart: the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A major K. 581, the String Quintet in g minor  K. 516, the Quintet for Horn and Strings in E-flat major K. 407, and the String Quintet in E-flat major  K. 614. Inspired performances of Mozart are very rare; lackluster performances are much more common and those at the Huntington were particularly so. I’ve long thought that one of the sources of the piquancy of Mozart’s music is the tension between his sheer inventiveness – which carries with it a suggestion of improvisation – and the solidity of his compositional technique. As listeners we can sense the structure of a piece – even without prior analysis or program notes – but we rely on the performers to supply the improvisational character. Unfortunately this quality was missing at the Huntington. I hope they do better this summer with a combination of predominantly French and Contemporary composers (www.swmusic.org).

In contrast the concert on May 11, 2012 by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic was a pleasant surprise. After hearing them on TV and in recordings I was not expecting the attentiveness, energy, and clarity that they brought to all three pieces on the program: Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Magnus Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman, and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

Returning to Schnabel for a moment: I’m sure that in making his remarks he had no intention of statistical rigor and no doubt he would allow that a performance is rarely fixed at a single point on the scale. Even the disappointments can sometimes be of interest in parts and the more inspired performances can be inconsistent. Such was the case with the slow movement of the Tchaikovsky, which requires qualities in addition to energy and precision and in their absence came across as somewhat lifeless. But even here there was a surprise in the form of a bassoon solo played spellbindingly by Judith LeClair.