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Tag: brahms

A Massive, Exhilarating Double Album From the Spektral Quartet

One unexpectedly entertaining feature of the Spektral Quartet’s lavish double album Experiments in Living is an “online card deck emulator” that facilitates very strange, quirky yet also insightful ways to create playlists from its vast range of material. Modeled after a tarot deck, it’s meant to defamiliarize the listener and, one suspects, lure them into hearing something they might not otherwise choose. Plenty of diehards will see the Ruth Crawford Seeger quartet here and immediately dial up all four movements, in order. But the card deck is a cool idea: it never hurts to listen outside the box. And if you just want to listen to the album inside the box, literally, it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

The material ranges from the well-worn to the once-and-still-radical to the more recent, adventurous sounds the group are best known for. How do they approach the Brahms String Quartet No. 1? The first movement seems fast, a little skittish, very acerbically rhythmic: they’re keeping their ears wide open. Even if you find the music impossibly dated, this version definitely isn’t boring. Those echo effects really come into sharp focus!

By contrast, the nocturnal second and third movements come across as careful, pastoral tableaux, the changes very proto-ELO. The group – violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen – cut loose on the intertwining finale. The close-miked clarity of the individual instruments in the mix is superior: Rolen’s quasi-basslines have a welcome presence.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 is right up their alley, from the first movement’s icepick exchanges to its hypnotic yet restlessly acidic counterpoint and a paint-peeling ending. Dynamic contrasts are subtle but striking, particularly in the more muted second movement. Balletesque precision alternates with sullen sustain and soaring highs in the third; the quartet’s unexpectedly slinky groove in the fourth is a revelation. Defiance has seldom been more resolute than this.

It’s a hard act to follow, but the Seeger quartet is every bit as gripping and a brilliantly contemporaneous segue (1931 for her, 1927 for him). In a word, wow. The ensemble attack it with a light-fingered, sometimes almost fleeting pointillism, an endess thicket of echo effects and sudden tradeoffs in the first couple of movements. The griptite resonance of the third seems almost backward-masked as phrases or single notes pass around the sonic frame; the group, particularly Rolen, really dig in vigorously up to a sudden end that’s just as coy as Schoenberg’s.

The first of the 21st century pieces is a Sam Pluta diptych, a shivery, punchy round-robin punctuated with droll, often cartoonish extended technique: harmonics, white noise, things that go bump in general, all of it amusing to hear and brutally hard to play.

Flutist Claire Chase joins the quartet for Anthony Cheung‘s 2015 suite The Real Book of Fake Tunes. Her assertive, rhythmic swells balance with the strings’ pizzicato bounce, then a microtonal haze sets in, punctuated by wry echoes and leaps. The third segment, with its stark microtonal chords and flute scurrying amid them, is edgy fun, as is the alternatingly whirling and grittily suspenseful fourth part. The conclusion bristles with good jokes and peek-a-boo riffage: it stands up amidst some very formidable material here.

Singer Charmaine Lee, who writes and improvises in phonetic language, teams up with the group for her surrealistically playful 2018 piece Spinals. This is what the word “sillypants” on the tarot card generator will get you, complete with what sounds like turntable scratching, whether acoustic or electronically generated.

The quartet close with George Lewis’ String Quartet 1.5: Experiments in Living, from two years earlier. Keening glissandos and flickers dance and swing over chugging, sputtering, often ridiculous riffage, with circular, microtonal clusters punctuated by droll flicks and punches. Definitely sillypants – with daunting extended technique and a little horror movie ambience to keep you (and the band) on your toes.

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

Is It Time to Trash Classical Piano Competitions? Some Insiders Say Yes

For the last several years, Ilona Olutski, founder of the Getclassical series, has been staging remarkably imaginative piano-centric concerts around town. She started at Zinc Bar and has expanded to several more sonically welcoming venues. Last night at Opera America, she put on one of her most entertaining programs yet, featuring insightful performances of Schumann and Brahms works followed by a righteously hilarious roundtable discussion which didn’t take long to reach the conclusion that piano competition in the digital age needs a complete overhaul if it’s going to have any real-world relevance.

“My passion is big Romantic sonatas,” pianist Daumants Liepins – winner of the Vendome Prize at last year’s Verbier Festival in Switzerland – told the crowd. Other pianists are not so lucky to get to indulge that passion to the extent that Liepins does. His interpretations of Schumann’s Piano Sonata No.1 in F# minor and and Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor were insightful, as skilful as one would expect from a victorious competitor, and if they erred anywhere, it was on the side of elegance and good taste.

The Schumann came across as something of a pivot point where Bach meets Rachmaninoff. Liepins’ approach to the piece’s counterpoint was steady, but not to the point of rigidity. Throughout the work, there were several striking exchanges of riffs that brought to mind a young Rachmaninoff parsing the score, thinking to himself, “I can distill this to three and a half minutes,” and then cranking out his famous G Minor Prelude. Throughout the piece, Liepins distinguished himself by walking a tightrope between the severe and the lyrical, reveling in the coda’s wry triumph.

His take of the Brahms had a vastly wider dynamic range, and that really saved the piece. This sonata isn’t typical, translucent (some would say facile) Brahms: there’s a persistent sense of struggle, the composer trying to get something onto the page at fortissimo volume and very seldom actually nailing it. But there is a lot of humor in it, and Liepins clearly couldn’t wait to romp through those grandiose flourishes, and a little strutting faux-pomp, with more than a bit of a smirk. Contrastingly, he really let the low lefthand murk toward the end resonate, raising the enigmatic factor. He’s recording those pieces for Steinway today, and the matter-of-fact confidence he showed here left no doubt that he’s ready for the studio.

Asked afterward if he felt that competitive playing had helped his career, he affirmed that it had driven him to sharpen his chops and then flex them. But later, after everybody else on the panel was pretty much done venting, he averred that he’d played just as well at competitions he didn’t win as at those he did, chalking up the final scores to judicial capriciousness

And did those competitions ever get a thrashing. Zsolt Bognar, host of Living the Classical Life, offered a withering bit of sports play-by-play, mocking the kind of nitpicking involved. Producer Joe Patrych questioned whether competitions have any positive career impact, reminding that Vladimir Horowitz only really came into his own after returning from twelve years out of music, having been typecast for years as strictly a mile-a-minute, speed-and-proficiency guy.

From the academic side, both Karlstad University’s Julia Mustonen-Dahlquist and Mannes piano department chair Pavlina Dokovska spoke to the need to open up juries to non-pianists – an idea everyone enthusiastically endorsed – and decried the conflicts of interest in judging one’s own students (that happens a lot). Composer Sean Hickey soberly reminded everyone that speed and technique are hardly the only reasons why audiences come out. There was also unanimous support for taking competitions offline: both Bognar and Liepins considered how a competitively-oriented mindset goes even further into the red when playing for an internet audience along with the judges.

What wasn’t addressed was how piano has come to be taught academically, and how competitions are often simply the logical end result. There’s no limit to the cynicism that can be extrapolated from how much speed-reading and technical proficiency are emphasized over interpretive skill: Cruella DeVille is very much alive, and now a career coach.

And there’s a sobering reality behind piano pedagogy as Kaplan class. One day you’re playing Stockhausen, the next day Schubert, and you have to be able to shift gears seamlessly if not with any particular attunement to content, subtext or emotional connection. As everyone seemed to agree, that’s precisely where great musicians differentiate themselves from the competition.

The next concert in this year’s Getclassical series is on March 17 at 7 PM at the Revelation Gallery, 224 Waverly Pl. featuring the Ekstasis Duo – pianist Eliran Avni and cellist Natasha Farni – playing a program TBA. Cover is $20.

An Elegantly Insightful, Unselfconsciously Vivid Performance by Pianist Melody Fader and Cellist Elinor Frey in Soho

“I don’t do intermissions,” Melody Fader grinned, almost breathlessly. She’d just played two Beethoven sonatas and a ravishing, opulent Chopin work, pretty much nonstop. During the reception after the latest performance at her intimate Soho Silk Series earlier this month, she explained that once she gets on a roll, she doesn’t like to quit. Maybe that’s because she and cellist Elinor Frey were obviously having so much fun, in an insightful, meticulously dynamic performance of Beethoven’s two Op. 5 cello sonatas as well as Fader’s literally transcendent performance of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 27, no. 2 in D flat.

“These are really piano sonatas,” Fader laughed, introducing Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in F Major. She and Frey bantered about the innovations Beethoven had introduced to a format that until after the baroque period had often been a springboard for improvisation. But as much as both pieces come across as works for piano with cello accompaniment rather than the other way around, there’s plenty of room for convivial interplay, and the duo’s sympatico performance more than validated that.

As Sonata No 1 gathered momentum, Fader parsed the work judiciously, with a muted staccato in the lefthand early on. As the two built to an effervescent romp, she gave the ornamentation considerable dignity, elegant flourishes not simply tossed off as grace notes. From there the two joined in a vivacious pulse that grew more acerbic as the allegro second movement and its bracing shift to minor kicked in.

Frey’s ambered lines as Cello Sonata No. 2 got underway underscored the first movement’s bittersweet cantabile sensibility. Fader’s vigorous, stilletto insistence and balletesque clusters followed in contrast up to a real hailstorm of a coda, with unwavering precision and power as Frey held the center.

But the real piece de resistance on the bill was the Chopin. Other pianists go for starry ripple, but Fader took her time, bringing out all the longing and angst in the opening movement, setting the scene for a big payoff when the starlight really started beaming down and the famous hook from all the excerpts you hear in movies first appears:, ironically where other pianists often pull back. Fader parsed the melodies with rubato to spotlight ideas and transitions instead of going for drama. Imbuing the finale with lingering tenderness, Fader left no doubt that this is a love song. Which made even more sense considering that Fader had dedicated it to her girlfriend, Laura Segal, a woman with a wry sense of humor and unselfconscious joie de vivre.

Fader’s next performance in the southern part of Manhattan is Nov 13 at 8 PM at Greenwich House Music School, where she’ll be joined by violinist Sophie Ackermann and cellist Nicolas Deletaille,, playing works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Dalit Warshaw. Cover is $20/$15 stud/srs. and there’s a reception afterward.

Riveting New Sounds and Old Crowd-Pleasers From the Claremont Trio

If the Claremont Trio’s forthcoming album is anything like their concert last week to open this year’s Music Mondays series on the Upper West Side, it’s going to be amazing.

The program was typical of this venue, a mix of rapturously interesting 21st century works along with a couple of old warhorses. The three musicians – violinist Emily Bruskin, cellist Julia Bruskin and pianist Andea Lam – offered some gleefully phantastmagorical Halloween foreshadowing with four folk song variations by Gabriela Lena Frank. Careful, wary long-tone overlays between the musicians quickly gave way to a devious, ghostly game of peek-a-boo, carnivalesque pirouettes and wary, lingering, Messiaenic chords.

Helen Grime‘s Three Whistler Miniatures – inspired by an exhibit at the Gardner Museum in Boston – were more austere and ominously resonant: rich washes of cello, mordantly assertive piano and slithery violin all figured into the mini-suite’s striking dynamic shifts and desolate reflecting-pool chill at the end.

The two warhorses were Dvorak’s Dumky Trio and Brahms’ final trio, No. 3 in C Minor. The former was a Slavic soul party, fueled as much by the violin’s elegantly leaping Romany-flavored cadenzas as much as by Lam’s alternately romping and unexpectedly muted attack. The three women played up the music’s pensive side, leaving a lot of headroom for the composer’s series of triumphant codas.

Where they pulled back on the Dvorak for the sake of emotional attunement and contrast, they did the opposite with the Brahms, Lam in particular adding extra vigor, which paid off particularly well in the andante third movement as she added a degree of gravitas. Otherwise, there wasn’t much the Trio could enhance: the music was lovely, and predictable, party music for the thieving dukes and abbots and the gentry of 19th century Germany. As proto-ELO, it wasn’t up to Jeff Lynne level.

Music Mondays continues on October 7 at 7:30 PM at Advent Church at the corner of 93rd St. and Broadway with the Aizuri String Quarte playing works by Haydn, Hildegard von Bingen, Brahms and Caroline Shaw. Admission is free, but you’ll have to get there at least least fifteen minutes early if you really want a seat at what has become one of Manhattan’s favorite classical spots.

 

A Riveting, Revealing Evening of Rare Gems at Nancy Garniez’s Music Salon

Nancy Garniez runs one of Manhattan’s most rapturously entertaining concert series out of her Upper West Side apartment. Beyond its significance as the place where her daughter Rachelle Garniez – arguably this century’s greatest songwriter in any style of music – grew up, it’s a fertile greenhouse for discovery, and contemplation, and banter, and bliss.

Garniez mère has a very cantabile way of playing: her hands sing. “How do we get this off the page?” is her mantra, a constant search to bring to life every subtle joke, or allusion, or plunge into troubled waters that a composer might take. Her repertoire is vast. The first of this week’s two salons spanned from standard-repertoire Haydn to uncommon Chopin and Brahms and very rare Bartok.

She parsed those pieces at a comfortably strolling pace – composers and performers who show off do not sit well with her, at all  She’s been doing this for decades, yet has lost none of her joy of discovery. She opened with a deviously inquisitive improvisation. Before sitting down at the piano, she’d told the audience about how, as a student, she’d had difficulty handling single notes (as opposed to notes comfortably nested within chords). It was like Morton Feldman without the fussiness – hard as that might be to imagine, consider his obsession with a note’s attack and decay. But Garniez considers the big picture more than mere resonance, in the context of a work’s emotional content as well as the player’s frame of mind.

Graceful expanses of one hand answering the other bookended the performance. From listening to the opening Haydn Sonata in D, one astute observer picked up on how the composer would build conversational tension between right and left hand and then offer a moment of relief as a phrase would rise and then pause. There was more of a contemplatively strolling, candlelit quality in a pair of Brahms Intermezzi, like something a composer would play for his family. Garniez is quick to differentiate between a composer’s public persona and his inner self.

The pièces de résistance were dirges by Bartok. Who knew there were such things at all? Does anyone beside Garniez ever play them? What a revelation – like Satie on steroids, influenced by Debussy, and foreshadowing everybody from Messiaen to Jehan Alain. Stern close harmonies in the lefthand exchanging with mournful bell-like motives alluded to unrequited dreams, unfinished business and the sudden, lingering shock of emptiness.

Just as powerful was the relentless intensity of Chopin’s Polonaise in E Flat Minor. Garniez explained that she’d been blown away watching Arthur Rubinstein play it at Carnegie Hall and validated that epiphany. Just when you think its atmosphere is going to lighten, it sinks another step toward the abyss. This and the rest of the program made a heartfelt requiem for the late poet Michael O’Brien.

Afterward, as usual, there was wine, and tasty gluten-free dessert, and lively conversation. Ace drummer Eve Sicular, leader of Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos, shared her insight with the rest of the audience. These salons are like the protests popping up around town: you never know who you’ll run into, or who you’ll reconnect with from ten years ago. The next one is this Sunday, Feb 26 at 4 PM, possibly including some of the works on this bill. Email for location and info.

The Spectrum Symphony and Makoko Hirata Bring Thrills to the West Village

Makiko Hirata charged through the raging, ominously cascading torrents of the first movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, conductor David Grunberg animatedly leading the Spectrum Symphony through the stormy gusts in tandem with her, through the series of menacing, twistedly marionettish passages. At the end, Hirata’s face lit up in an unselfconsciously triumphant grin as the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. It was the high point of the pianist and orchestra’s concert a couple of days ago in the West Village, yet another indication of how some big city orchestras may be in trouble, but there are many young, hungry ensembles who are clearly on their way up and the Spectrum Symphony are paradigmatic of that shift. As one member of the crowd enthused afterward, “They just get better and better with every show.”

The concluding movements of the Prokofiev are both more subtle and dynamic, not to mention less charged with angry subtext, and the pianist and orchestra focused in on the methodically rising and falling glimmer of the second movement and the richly intricate, often biting interweave between piano and orchestra on the concluding one. This performance was a prime illustration of how composers by Prokofiev’s time had transformed the concerto form from what had been basically a showcase for piano against a wash of orchestration, into a fully cohesive creation where piano and orchestra join forces in developing the architecture.

The orchestra had opened with the New York premiere of an even more explosive if considerably shorter piece, Philip Wharton‘s There Was a Star Danced, which followed the initial big bang resonance of Matthew Beaumont’s huge gong through rapifire showers of sparks from the violins and then what became wryly jaunty, rhythmic jousting. The composer, who was in the audience, explained that the piece had originally been conceived as a work for students to get them to let off some steam. So the ensemble played it again!

The program’s concluding work was an only slightly less kinetic interpretation of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1. From the perspective of having seen three different performances of this piece this year, this was the most exciting. Grunberg conducted from memory, the orchestra taking this old warhorse to war with an aptly heroic, no-holds barred intensity. The balance between Brahms’ lavishly highlighted, individual voices was clear and distinct throughout the sonic spectrum, through a rewardingly boisterous first movement, a lustrous second, and a final fourth that emphasized more of the high drama in the composer’s Beethovenesque series of false endings than its inherent humor.

Sunday with the GVO

Sunday the Greenwich Village Orchestra, led by guest conductor Farkhad Khudyev, put on a characteristically majestic, sweeping, intuitive performance of a couple of concert standards as well as a late addition to the bill that turned out to be the piece de resistance. Khudyev isn’t a flamboyant conductor: he seems to be part of the music, swaying as if lost in it but responding to its nuances with split-second timing, breaking the trance whenever necessary – which happened a lot. Born of Azeri heritage, his affinity for a fellow composer from the Caucasus, Aram Kachaturian, is no secret, so it made sense that the orchestra opened with the Sabre Dance. “The chase scene!” said one onlooker. “Keystone Kops,” remarked another. It was a little of both, and more, but it wasn’t camp either: this was a pinpoint, precise take, a whirling dervish of a spectacle with more than a little sense of unease.

That came to the forefront in Kachaturian’s Violin Concerto, GVO concertmaster Robert Hayden tackling its spiraling swirls and incisive, insistent passages with a raw, bracing tone and a dynamic attack that spanned pretty much the entire spectrum. Anxiety gave way to pure apprehension and then suspensefully lush atmospherics as the piece moved into the morose, dirgelike second movement, punctuated intensely by staccato, stalking bass. Khudyev brought out the tango allusions lurking just beneath the surface (tangos were a big thing throughout much of the eastern bloc at the time this was written), to the brightly anxious minuet that closes it.

The grand finale was Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. Like a beautiful woman, it has a fan base but also an element that loves to hate on it for that same beauty. But it’s not shallow: that beauty is wistful and bittersweet, which has kept it in circulation all these years. Its motifs have percolated throughout Hollywood, and tv, and commercials and NPR themes to the point where everybody knows it, if not always by name. How does an orchestra make this big, beautiful old warhorse fresh without subsuming that central beauty in something the composer didn’t want? Can and should an orchestra attempt anything like that in the first place? To an extent, this ensemble did, with rewarding results. The first movement was billowy and lush as expected: stripped to its essentials (buried deep, deep beneath the swells of the strings), it’s a courtly dance, stately but not regal, Teutonic but not mechanical. Khudyev gave the sweeping, swoony nocturnal second movement extra altitude by bringing it down very, very quietly in places to add an element of contrast: as with the Kachaturian, his attention to detail was striking. The orchestra gave the wounded third movement an arioso grandeur that stopped just thisshort of camp and then let the juxtaposition of triumphant swells and candlelit glimmer speak for itself the rest of the way. Epic, lush and ultimately optimistic, it was a triumph in every sense of the word.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra’s next concert is on May 20 at 3 PM, with guest conductor Yaniv Segal (of the equally eclectic, thrilling Chelsea Symphony) leading a performance of Shosakovich’s Symphony No. 9 followed by the GVO’s own Barbara Yahr conducting Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.