Friday, 21 October 2016

An Impressive Debut Recording

Okay, let's go right up front here: I'm breaking my own rules.  This is supposed to be a blog that reviews live arts performances, as the title clearly states.  And this review is not of a live performance, but of a recording.  But hey, if a fellow can't break his own rules, whose rules can he break?

My justification is that this recording features a Canadian ensemble, the Cheng²Duo, which I have reviewed four times in live performance, and in two cases playing music which is now included on this debut recording.  That may be a thin rationale to some of my readers, but what truly intrigued me was the growth and development of the music over time and in the recording studio.

First, here are the links to the previous blog posts which reviewed the music involved in the CD, and included some comments about the development of the Duo's performance:

And so to the recording.  This impressive CD debut, entitled Violoncelle français, presents a recital of music from France bridging across the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth century.  The composers represented are Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Franck, and Debussy.  The music is an intriguing mixture of small character pieces, which might be termed "salon music," one theatre piece, and two larger chamber works.

With such a blend of styles comes the need for varied styles of performance as well.  The shorter character works, such as the Faure Sicilienne and Elegie, or the Swan of Saint-Saëns, receive performances in lush, rich sound that yet doesn't overpower the simpler character of the music.

Debussy's Sonata is given an interpretation of dramatic contrasts, as the music demands. 

At the heart of the recording is the Franck Sonata in A Minor, and here was where I really noticed a difference from the two occasions when I heard the Cheng²Duo perform the work live.  What a totally involving account of this wonderful score!  The difference is a matter of quality which is not easy to define: an increase in intensity, a deeper digging into the essence of the music, a stronger sense of the drama of the music expressed in restraint rather than excess.

I'd be intrigued to know whether this comes from the closer observation of the microphones, or from the process of the work in studio with multiple takes interspersed with listening to playbacks and discussing the results before continuing.

What was quite clear, after multiple listenings, was that this is an interpretation of the Franck Sonata to live with, and to return to frequently.  This one work alone would make the recording a worthwhile acquisition, and then there are such riches in the rest of the programme as well.

The recording from the German label Audite is impressive, with clear, present sound set in a believable acoustic so the instruments are neither too close nor too distant.  The CD album comes with an impressive booklet of generously detailed programme notes.

I'll close with two footnotes.  One was that I also pulled out my recording of the original violin version of the Sonata for comparison.  Sad to say, it's been eclipsed.  I now have to go shopping for another and better recording with violin.

The other footnote is that the next recording from the Cheng²Duo is going to be a recital of music from Spain.  I have a real "thing" for Spanish music -- maybe I was Spanish in a previous life -- so it's going to be a long year to wait for that one to be issued!

Saturday, 15 October 2016

How It Works

Last night, I attended a very interesting event at the Toronto Symphony.  The orchestra has been presenting conductor Rob Kapilow's What Makes It Great? series for a number of years now, but this is the first time I have ever attended one of these unusual concerts.  I have to admit that the incentive came from hearing a former colleague talk about taking a class of students to hear such a concert, and the impact it had on them.  That's why I selected this particular event when I had a subscription ticket that I needed to exchange.

Of course it didn't do any harm that I particularly enjoy the musical work under consideration!

The format of Kapilow's concerts is organized in two parts.  In the first part, he walks the audience through the structure, thematic material, orchestration, and the like, with the players of the orchestra providing live musical examples as they go.  After the intermission, the work is played complete.  If this sounds a bit too much like Classical Music for Beginners, I can only assure you that you are wrong -- and that, even for an old codger like me who thought he knew the score very well, Kapilow managed to cast surprising new illumination on the structure of an old warhorse.

So, tonight was Ravel's famous orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  The original work was written in 1874 for solo piano, and is one of the great monuments of the 19th-century piano repertoire.  Ravel's version was created in 1922 when he was himself at the height of his powers as a composer and master orchestrator.  Although many other composers have created their own orchestral versions of the Pictures, none has ever seized the public's fancy -- or the eyes of the professional musicians -- as much as this one.

So it was particularly intriguing to me that Kapilow, in the first half, actually had the orchestra play several excerpts from the hands of other arrangers to highlight the differences in procedure in Ravel's version.  In saying that, I'm not forgetting that the orchestra -- under its previous Music Director, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, recorded the complete work in a version which selected from the orchestrations of Leo Funtek and Sergei Gortchakov.

Since Kapilow also played some sections of Mussorgsky's original piano score on an electronic keyboard during the first half, he gave the audience a good collection of insights into the music and Ravel's approach to recasting it for full orchestra.  All of this explaining and illustrating was done with tremendous energy and plenty of good laugh lines.  After all, who ever said or believed that classical music ought to be boring?

Perhaps the biggest insight was Kapilow's observation that the pictures, at least those that have survived (they were reproduced in the programme) are, frankly speaking, not very good.  Hartmann, the artist, wasn't nearly as memorable as the music might have us think.  Really, Mussorgsky was composing a musical tribute to his recently-deceased friend, and in the process was creating stories in music inspired by the prosaic pictures.

For me, the most startling results come in two of the movements, starting with Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.  These were actually two separate portraits drawn by Hartmann.  It was Mussorgsky's genius that forever linked them together and memorably created a scene which Hartmann never painted -- a scene with the rich and poor Jews arguing with each other.

The other extraordinary amplification comes in Baba Yaga.  Hartmann's picture depicts a perfectly ordinary folk-styled wall clock in the shape of Baba Yaga's hut.  It was Mussorgsky who ditched the clock and instead created a full-throttle exciting witch's ride for Baba Yaga, with a chilling creepy portrait of the magical hut on chicken's claws dwelling in the centre of the music as the hut lay hidden in the forest.

The predictable result of all this explaining and demonstrating came after the intermission.  I imagine the rest of the audience shared my feeling of hearing the Pictures at an Exhibition with fresh ears and a whole new point of view.

The performance itself was powerful, certainly.  Dynamic ranges were wide without being overwhelming.  A couple of the more rapid passages showed a tendency to start pulling apart for a moment or two, but on the whole we got a good -- if not great -- reading of the Pictures.  Highlights for me were the dwindling quiet ending of Bydlo, the sustained mystical feeling of Con mortuis, and the hair-raising witch's ride.

After the concert ends, there's a question and answer period.  Kapilow took perhaps a dozen questions from different audience members.  I was particularly happy that somebody asked Patricia Krueger about all the different instruments she had to play (tamtam, ratchet, slapstick, triangle, and celesta!).  She simply said, laughingly, that it was fun to be able to do so.  It was Rob Kapilow who pointed out that he had never seen another orchestra in which the chief keyboard player joined in so readily on the percussion as well.  That brought a big wave of applause, from audience and players, for one of the orchestra's senior members!

Take it all in all, it was certainly a fun evening -- informative and entertaining in equal measures.  

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Rousing (Mostly) Russian Concert

A week ago, I was listening to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, which is not a favourite of mine.  In my review, I compared different aspects of the work to the same composer's Piano Concerto No. 3 and to Mahler's Symphony # 3.
I already knew that I would be hearing the Mahler on Wednesday of this week, but I had totally forgotten that the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra's opening concert on Friday included the Rachmaninoff Concerto.  Joke's on me, I guess.
But first, the non-Russian work of the evening.  One of the delights of the KWSO is the programming of a contemporary work in almost every one of their main stage concerts.  It's a great way to get introduced to the music of a large variety of present day composers.  Tonight's work came from American composer Mason Bates, and was commissioned for an orchestra I had never heard of -- the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.  If you haven't heard of it either, look it up -- it's a fascinating story!
So, tonight we heard Mothership, a most unusual work fusing traditional symphonic writing with such instruments as the electric violin, the Indian tabla, and the pedal steel guitar, as well as electronic percussion.  The piece doesn't contain a great deal of melodic material, but is definitely driven by its rhythms.  These rhythms include fascinating added and dropped bars and beats, so that you are constantly adjusting your mental sense of where the principal beat lies.  As well, the music includes improvised sections for the electric violin, the tabla, and the pedal steel guitar.  If this all sounds complex, it certainly was, but also involving and well worth another hearing.
The orchestra was then joined by pianist Natasha Paremski for Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 43.  To call this a fiendish work is a masterpiece of understatement.  For years it remained almost untouched apart from the composer's own memorable performances.  There can't be many works in the concerto repertoire with so much black ink and so little white space per page in the piano part! 

Together, Paremski and music director Edwin Outwater presented us with a performance of extremes.  Fast passages were dangerously fast, slow passages languorously slow.  The quietest moments were very quiet indeed and the loud moments (there are many) nearly lifted the roof off the Centre in the Square.  Once again, the orchestra provided a large projection screen displaying the keyboard and the pianist's flying hands, and this technological helper let the entire audience see for themselves just how many huge chords are contained in this work.

It was all very thrilling to be sure, but there were moments when I felt a little restraint might have served the music better.  To give just one example: at almost the exact centre of the first movement there is a fortissimo chordal passage for the piano, outlining a theme of great dramatic power which is heard nowhere else in the concerto.  It begins allegro but only after 16 bars does it accelerate into an allegro molto which brings about the movement's catastrophic climax.  Outwater and Paremski hit the ground running with this theme at nearly a presto and kept speeding up from there, and the individual chords disappeared in a mush of noise.

On the other hand, the quieter moments -- such as the bulk of the second movement -- were played with much subtlety and a sense of the poetic air of the music.  Overall, a good performance of this very difficult piece, and Paremski certainly earned every inch of the cheering and applause which she received.

After the intermission, the concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36.  I was delighted at having a chance to hear this work again, as it has always been my personal favourite among the composer's six symphonies.  To me it is the most successful as a symphonic structure, but also the most truthfully Russian in the sense that any of the main themes sound as if they could be derived from Russian folk music -- although in fact only the fourth movement depends overtly on a well-known folk tune.

The brass fanfare at the beginning which carries the "Fate" theme that is the symphony's recurring motto was played with great power and emphasis, particularly on the descending scale that gets louder as it plunges into the depths.  The two great staccato chords, like lightning bolts, were nailed with precision that sent the echoes rebounding around the hall.

When the main theme in 9/8 time entered in the strings, it was plain that Outwater heeded the direction "In movimento di Valse" as the music lilted along for the first bars before the intensity began to build up.  The tempo change to moderato for the quiet second theme, and the subsequent acceleration back to full speed were well handled each time that change occurred.  Most memorable of all were the climactic bars of the development section in which the dramatic exertions of the strings and winds were repeatedly punctuated by blazing reiterations of the fanfare motif on the brass.  The end of the movement accelerated briskly up to a breathtaking conclusion.

In the mournful second movement, the winds delicately outlined the main theme and its counter melodies.  The ending faded gently away to inaudible.

The most challenging movement of this work is the scherzo, which is written throughout for the pizzicato (plucked) strings.  It's fast, energetic music, but it is all too easy to get too fast and have the almost percussive textures come apart at the seams, and this I felt did happen once or twice for a few moments -- although the orchestra soon recovered its unity.  The winds and horns were delightful in the trio section, their crisp solo lines bright without being forceful, and the brilliant high-speed ornaments from the piccolo were a particular delight.

The fourth movement opened forcefully, and quickly moved into the folk tune which is (as usually is the case with folk tunes) repeated ad infinitum.  Tchaikovsky did all he could to avoid boredom by moving it up and down in pitch, changing it between minor and major keys, varying the speed, and altering the orchestration -- and indeed, of all his folksong-based movements, this one is the most successful at keeping tedium at bay.  The orchestra found all the varieties of light and shade, of texture and tone, and at the same time managed to maintain the sense of fun inherent in this music.  The unexpected intrusion of the Fate fanfares again at the end was as startling as possible.  After that, Outwater carefully graduated the return of the folksong themes, instrument by instrument, letting it all build up naturally and organically -- while still keeping something of both speed and volume in reserve for the explosive coda.  A very rewarding Tchaikovsky Fourth indeed!