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Classical Pianist Ruth Slenczynska Releases a Thoughtfully Lyrical New Album With a Record-Breaking Backstory

Pianist Ruth Slenczynska’s new album My Life in Music – streaming at Spotify – is an attractive and individualistic mix of standard repertoire and a handful of surprises.

She opens with a thoughtfully opulent take of Rachmaninoff’s Daisies, from his Romances, Op. 18 and follows with his Prelude No.5 in G major with its dancing, glittery righthand clusters. She plays Samuel Barber’s Nocturne (Homage to John Field) with a considered, brooding simmer. She gives a deadpan steadiness but also a determined grit to a considerably different, ragtime-tinged Barber tune, Let’s Sit It Out and Wait, from his suite Fresh From West Chester.

Slenczynska opts for a balletesque grace in Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante in Eb, op. 18, eschewing the floridness so many other pianists give it, an approach that works equally well a little later in Grieg’s Wedding Day in Trodhaugen. And in her hands, her tenderly yet playfully articulated version of Chopin’s famous Berceuse is a revelation: those echo effects are irresistible. As is her generous use of space in an unselfconsciously unhurried interpretation of Debussy’s The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.

The other Chopin pieces here have similarly distinctive insights. There’s a lowlit Etude No. 3 in E Major, and a cheery, strolling Prelude in G Major, Op. 18. The longest and most energetic work here is the Fantaisie in F Minor: Slenczynska slows much of it down practically to dirge speed and volume, an effect which is both comedic and enlightening, as she picks up a remarkable amount of detail and dramatic contrast. She closes the album with a methodically articulated version of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C# minor, BWV 849.

Now for the punchline: Slenczynska is 97 years old. It is astonishing how undiminished both her chops and her ideas are.

She made her stage debut at four, her European debut at five. Every major pianist of the 1930s including Sergei Rachmaninoff was eager to coach her. She is his last living student; she treasures the Faberge egg necklace he gave her. She would go on to record ten albums and tour the world, earning a reputation as a very colorful, entertaining performer. This new album is her first in sixty years, undoubtedly a record-breaking achievement. Let’s hope she got at least a two-album deal out of it.

Saluting a Great Orchestra From a Country Under Siege

The Vienna Philharmonic have been revered as one of the world’s finest orchestras for over a century. One of their more recent traditions has been an outdoor Summer Night Concert. They’ve released their 2021 performance, with Daniel Harding on the podium and pianist Igor Levit, streaming at Spotify. The ensemble are obviously jumping out of their shoes with the joy of being allowed to play again. At this point in history, there’s no doubt that this magnificent concert represents the people of Austria far more than the sinister apartheid state being erected with echoes of another historical development just over the German border a little more than ninety years ago.

They open with a spacious, unhurried, utterly suspenseful performance of the Overture from Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. The brass/string harmonies are lusciously lustrous; the sudden leap into a gallop as the music picks up with a start is unselfconsciously breathtaking.

The piece de resistance should be Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the balance of energy and pillowy Romanticism that Harding draws out of it is visceral. It’s on the fast side, especially in the beginning, but who can argue with the shivers of the fleeting eighth movement, or the furtive bustle of the ninth, especially in context? And Levit builds expectant triumph into the famous andante cantabile love theme. What’s annoying is that like many other recent recordings of the suite, these intervals – many of them under a minute long – are broken up into individual tracks. You have to build your own playlist to fully enjoy this without having to constantly click on the next one.

Levit gets the stage to himself for a spare, somber take of Beethoven’s Fur Elise: as he sees it, what a sad, serious girl she must have been! Next on the bill are four of Leonard Bernstein’s Dances from West Side Story. The group launch into a dynamically swinging Prologue, complete with fingersnaps, then an aptly starry, summery Somewhere, a lilting Scherzo and a positively feral Mambo.

There’s not a lot an orchestra can do with Elgar’s schmaltzy Salut D’amour, but the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite gives Harding and the ensemble a chance to bring up the lights slowly and memorably, with meticulously swirling strings and understated brass: this is a peace march, not a warlord’s pageant.

Plaintive woodwinds and a hypnotic lushness permeate Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, arguably the most vivid piece on the bill. The orchestra wind up the concert on a jaunty, bubbly note with Jupiter, from Holst’s The Planets. Who knew how fast all this optimism and good cheer would evaporate in the months after this concert. The challenge will be to get it back: it only takes one generation for a totalitarian regime to annihilate the memory of any beautiful past.

Tracing Magic and Mysticism Through Decades of French Piano Music

Pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico‘s latest album Sound Visionaries – streaming at Spotify – traces the most harmonically acerbic side of French piano music, starting with Debussy’s fix-Asian, then exploring Messiaen’s otherworldly universes, up to Pierre Boulez. It’s a frequently wild, entertaining, haunting and counterintuitive performance.

Quilico brings Debussy’s Brouillards – the opening segment of his Preludes, Book 2 – full circle, through tinkling Javanese mist, to a chillier rainstorm and back. Feuilles Mortes turns out to be a steadier, more increasingly phantasmagorical tableau: her restraint, where others go straight for the macabre, is a revelation. Then she flips the script, bringing the flamenco flourishes of La Puerta Del Vino front and center.

Les Fees Sont d’Exquises Danseuses is less an unbridled spritely dance-off than a prelude to one, with dazzlingly articulated hints of future fireworks. Likewise, La Terrasse des Audiences du Clair de Lune focuses on emphatic, expectant, darkly carnivalesque phrasing. And she finds unexpected unease within the rapidfire rivulets of Ondine, particularly via lefthand grit.

Quilico’s blend of legato and wry ragtime flourishes in Les Tierces Alternes is insightful, and a lot of fun. The fireworks finally coalesce and flourish in the suite’s coda.

Debussy’s gamelanesque, chiming harmonies give way to Messiaen’s icily reverent resonance in eight selections from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus. Messiaen is not known for his sense of humor, but Quilico finds it, in the music-box bounce of #4 and the jaunty ragtimish allusions in #11, dauntingly vast clocktower resonance and austere close harmonies notwithstanding.

The procession of prophets, shepherds and wise men march regally through #16, even as the rhythms grow more dissociative. Following with the Star of Bethlehem tableau of #2 is a neat bit of programming, turning the composer’s foreshadowing inside out. Angels are just short of frantic to get the show on the road in #14.

There’s a return to coyly playful gremlinish fun in #11’s view from above. Quilico’s final selection from the suite is very evocative of Jehan Alain’s iconic organ work Litanies.

Quilico concludes the program with Boulez’s Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 3. Both are rather doctrinaire if quirky and improvisationally-inspired twelve-tone works.

Yet Another Lush, Picturesque Concert Album From the London Philharmonic

For the past several years, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has been releasing one live recording after another. Clearly, they cherrypick their concerts for particularly prime performances. One such came out last fall: a choice program of works by Ravel and Debussy, conducted meticulously and purposefully by François-Xavier Roth and streaming at Spotify.

Beyond the simple pairing of a couple of French impressionists, it’s a smart choice of pieces. Roth considered the famous, chromatic descending progression of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and immediately thought of the big riff from Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole – or the other way around.

This is often a very suspenseful recording. Although one hardly thinks of Debussy or Ravel as Halloween music, it was tempting to save this for the annual October-long Halloween celebration here. While the cd booklet doesn’t specify the location where the concert was recorded, there’s a generous amount of natural reverb, soloists bright and clear over the lushness of the massed high strings somewhat muted behind them.

Rising from almost complete silence, Roth leads the ensemble in a terse, hushed, relentlessly uneasy pulse, even beyond the first flamenco flute cadenza of the Rapsodie espagnole. The momentary Malaguena dance is coyly and elegantly phantasmagorical; the Habanera, starry and lustrous until sudden flashes of fireworks. The dynamics of the coda are on the restrained side for the most part. adding considerable and rather unexpected poignancy and make the finale seem even more explosive.

The take of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is similarly cautious and low-key, straight through to the woodwinds and the soloists, although Roth plays up the Spanish tinges as you would hope he’d do with this program. Then, when you would least expect it, everybody picks up the pace for a bit before returning to a pastorale that’s short of being languid. This is late afternoon and Bambi is on the lookout for guys with guns!

For Debussy, the ocean wasn’t the empire it was for Vaughan Williams, or the passion it was for Mendelssohn…or the potentially apocalyptic vortex it is for John Luther Adams. Debussy gravitated toward the coast, and this version of La mer is all about seashore, and waves and tidal motion, maybe in a sailboat but not out on the high seas.

Sudden but careful swells, flickering brass and winds lapping the beach color the opening movement: even a couple of passing storms steer clear of full-on thunder until the very end. What’s delightful about Roth’s interpretation is that this comes across e just as much of a nightscape, even if the composer specifies dawn til noon.

Roth also brings up the hidden flamenco touches in the playful waves of the second movement along with some dazzling sunbursts. The concluding duel between wind and waves is for the most part a genteel one, with more than one wry reference to the album’s previous woodsy scenario. Even if you’ve heard these pieces plenty of times, this album lures you to rediscover them.

Revisiting an Inviting, Convivial French Late Romantic Collection by the Neave Trio

The Neave Trio got high marks here last year for their album Her Voice, a collection of rare pieces by women composers (some might cynically say that even now, anything by a woman composer is rare). But the ensemble had done rewarding work before that record, including their 2018 release French Moments – streaming at Spotify – a collection of somewhat less obscure pieces from the Late Romantic period. This music doesn’t dissemble. It’s convivial, translucent and attractive and probably won’t satisfy those who fortify themselves with Bartok or Stravinsky. But the trio rise to this music’s warmly Romantic, finely polished level of craft.

One of these pieces is a nocturne, more or less. Another is wine-hour – or babysitting-hour – music for the idle classes of 19th century Europe. Another is a late composition by a favorite of the era who has fallen out of favor – and it’s good to see this group recording his work.

The nocturne, better known on its home turf than it is here, is Albert Roussel’s Trio, Op. 2. They open the first movement with a warmly but suspensefully crepuscular, almost tremoloing pulse. The music rises to an insistent, almost breathless peak that quickly fades away into pianist Eri Nakamura’s starry diminuendo. The strings – violinist Anna Williams and cellist Mikhail Veselov -carry the next upward drive to a lyrical rondo, some agitation and a whip of a coda.

There’s a wistful, vividly cantabilee quality to the second movement, the group really taking their time with it, Williams’ nimble flourishes contrasting with Nakamura’s emphatic underpinning. Veselov gets a welcome opportunity to darken the lustre in the moodily waltzing, dynamically shifting conclusion, ending almost like a palindrome.

The drinking music is Debussy’s Premier Trio, a student work written when he was 18, shlepping from country house to country house with one of Tschaikovsky’s patrons…and babysitting. It sure doesn’t sound anything like the Debussy we know and love. Schubertian counterpoint, anthemic opening credits-style hooks, a little prescient modal vamping and lighthearted phantasmagoria: pretty stuff, nothing too complicated or unsoothing. The trio are obviously having a good time with it.

Gabriel Fauré’s Trio, Op. 120 is a late work, and the three establish a rather saturnine mood in the initial exchanges of sober cello and glistening night-sky piano. A lush, lilting contentment gains momentum with Nakamura’s steady triplets and a real coup de grace at the end of the first movement. The second has more of an insistent unison pulse; everybody gets more of a workout in the third, Nakamura especially. The first and second, especially, have long interludes of sheer gorgeousness. Even though he managed to outlive Debussy, Faure stayed Romantic to the end.

Vivid, Poignant Rarities and Popular Favorites From Violist Dana Zemtsov and Pianist Anna Fedorova

Violist Dana Zemtsov and pianist Anna Fedorova each grew up as first-generation immigrants in France, so their album Silhouettes – streaming at Spotify – reflects a lot of personal influences and experiences. Their shared affinity for the material here, interpolating short pieces by Debussy among an eclectic mix of more expansive duo works, translates viscerally to the listener.

They risk making the rest of the record anticlimactic with their opening number, Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata. In 1919, the pioneering orchestral violist and composer submitted it to a composition contest, pseudonymously, under a man’s name. She finished second (to a similarly brilliant piece by Ernest Bloch) and earned a lot of press when her identity was revealed. It would become her most successful work in a vastly underrated career.

The duo launch into it with an opulent fierceness that rises and falls, with echoes of of early Bartok and Ravel: their spacious, comfortably starry approach to the first movement’s conclusion is a quietly mighty payoff. They bring a conspiratorial, marionettesque energy to the second movement. Zemtsov’s poignant resonance over Fedorova’s starry glimmer and whisper is just as impactful in the final one.

Dutch composer Arne Werkman’s 2007 Suite for viola and piano has some jaunty boogie-woogie cached in the acidically dancing lines of the opening movement, an occasionally creepy, carnivalesque sensibliity that the duo seize on in the second, and allusions to a moody bolero in the third. They bring the phantasmagoria to its logical conclusion in the Paganini-inspired coda.

Darius Milhaud’s Viola Sonata No. 1 begins with an uneasy stroll and cleverly intertwined counterpoint, Zemtsov and Fedorova reveling in the coy leaps and bounds of the second. The wistfully Romantic waltz of a third movement comes as a surprise, leaving the two musicians to tie things up with a ragtime-inflected wink and a grin in the finale.

A pensive ballad without words contrasts with bracing, Romany-inflected flair and nocturnal suspense throughout the swells and ebbs of George Enescu’s Concert Piece for Viola and Piano. The Debussy pieces begin with La plus que lente, a steady, rather tongue-in-cheek, cynically brooding take on early 20th century slow waltz cliches. The version of Clair de Lune here is rather muted and on the slow side: this nightscape has plenty of clouds. The final piece is the brief, lyrical student work Beau Soir.

Unmasking Mirna Lekic’s Lithe, Energetic, Brilliantly Thematic Solo Album

In 2017, when pianist Mirna Lekic released her solo debut album Masks – streaming at Spotify – who knew how much cultural baggage that title would take on! Lest anyone get the wrong idea, the themes she explores here have nothing to do with fascist regimentation or pseudoscientific propaganda. Au contraire: this is a playful, entertaining, extremely smartly programmed and insightfully dynamic collection of music. The connecting threads are childhood and phantasmagoria, typically the jaunty rather than sinister kind.

She begins with Debussy’s six-part La Boite a Joujoux (The Toybox), the last of his ballet scores. The contrast between blithely leaping passages and murky, resonant lows is striking, and Lekic cuts loose with abandon when the opportunity arises: this isn’t a cautious album. The opening prelude, for example, is slower, with more emphatic bursts – which give it character – than other pianists typically focus on.

Later, the toy soldiers on the battlefield have a light-footed strut that borders on satire (an approach that could also, without any subtext, simply illustrate a kid’s carefree imaginary world).

The Sheepfold for Sale is on the spare side, practically an etude in how to play Asian pentatonics with icepick precision. Lekic finds plenty of goofy humor in Tableau IV (A Fortune Made) and closes the suite on a high note.

A pair of very different works serve as the centerpiece here. Debussy’s Masques is somewhat more darkly phantasmagorical, and Lekic gives it a very saturnine ending. With its creepy single-note bassline, 20th century American composer Robert Muczynski’s Masks makes an unexpectedly good segue despite its thornier harmonies.

Martinu’s triptych Loutky (Puppets) bookends more traditional carnivalesque sounds around a famous, lighthearted Harlequin of a waltz: Lekic seems to draw what she can from what’s pretty insubstantial music.  She closes the record with another lesser-known trio of short works, Villa-Lobos’ Prole Do Bebe (Baby’s Family), which reveal a strong Debussy influence, both in terms of gestures and pentatonics. Dolls made of porcelain, papier-mache and wood, respectively, come across as remarkably agile, scintillating and finally, anything but wooden. Instead, Lekic leaves the listener with a smile and a romp.

Colorful, Entertaining Reinventions of Famous Classical Themes From the Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra

The Mike Fahie Jazz Orchestra‘s new album Urban(e) – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most genuinely orchestral jazz records ever made. On one level, it’s all about imaginative, outside-the-box arranging and playing. On another, it’s part of a long tradition of musicians appropriating tunes from every style imaginable: Bach writing variations on country dances; southern preachers making hymns out of old blues songs; the Electric Light Orchestra making surf rock out of a Grieg piano concerto. Here, Fahie takes a bunch of mostly-famous classical themes to places most people would never dare. It’s closer to ELO than, say, the NY Philharmonic.

Is this hubristic? Sure. Fahie addresses that issue in the album’s liner notes, assuring listeners he’s tried to be true to the intrinsic mood of each particular piece. The group’s reinvention of the third movement from Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1 – from when the composer was still more or less a Late Romantic – is a trip. Guitarist Jeff Miles gets to have fun with a few savage flares before Fahie makes chugging art-punk out of it, trombonist Daniel Linden’s blitheness offering no hint of how much further out the group are going to from there, through Vegas noir, a deliciously sinister Brad Mason trumpet solo, and more. It’s fun beyond belief.

To open the record, the group tackle Chopin’s iconic C minor prelude, beginning with a somber, massed lustre, bassist Pedro Giraudo and pianist Randy Ingram offering the first hints of revelry, Miles adding a word of caution. From there Fahie expands the harmonies many times over and the group make a latin-tinged romp out of it.

Tenor saxophonist Chet Doxas steps into the aria role in an easygoing remake of a piece from Puccini’s opera. There’s plenty of tasty suspense as Fahie’s epic suite of themes from Stravinsky’s Firebird coalesces from lush swells and glittery piano, through more carefree terrain, to a pensive yet technically daunting duet between the bandleader’s euphonium and Jennifer Wharton’s tuba.

Hearing Fahie play the opening riff from Debussy’s La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin on trombone is a revelation: that’s Pictures at an Exhibition! So much for musical appropriation, right? The rest of Fahie’s punchy, lustrous arrangement comes across as vintage, orchestral Moody Blues with brass instead of mellotron.

Fahie turns the second movement from Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony into a jaunty Swan Lake set piece, with a wistful solo from alto sax player Aaron Irwin and a more sobering one from trombonist Nick Grinder.

The group close the record with a lavish, nocturnal take of a brooding section of Bach’s Cantata, BWV 21. The theme is basically “troubles, troubles, troubles” – from Fahie’s clear-eyed opening solo, the counterpoint grows more envelopingly somber, up to some neat rhythmic inventions and a return back. This inspired cast also includes saxophonists Anton Denner, Quinsin Nachoff and Carl Maraghi; trumpeters Brian Pareschi, David Smith and Sam Hoyt; tombonist Matthew McDonald and drummer Jeff Davis.

Picturesque Brilliance and Rare Treasures at Vasco Dantas’ New York Debut

“Feel free to create your own story for each of these preludes,” pianist Vasco Dantas encouraged the big crowd who’d come out for his New York debut at Carnegie Hall yesterday. Playing from memory for the better part of two hours, he gave them a panoramic view from five thousand feet. The music didn’t need titles or explanations: whatever was there, he brought out in stunning focus.

The most highly anticipated part of the program comprised a very rarely performed, pentatonically-spiced suite, Portuguese composer Luis de Freitas Branco’s 10 Preludios. Interspersing these World War I vintage pieces with five from Debussy’s 1910 Book 1 might well seem ludicrous on face value. But in a particularly sharp stroke of programming, Dantas had rearranged them so that, at least for those familiar with the French composer, there was never a question as to who was who.

And Branco’s music in many ways is more Debussy than Debussy himself: what a discovery! An Asian influence, often gamelanesque, sometimes mystical, was ubiquitous, as were close harmonies that sometimes reached an aching unresolve. Taking his time to let the narratives unfold, Dantas revealed a lullaby cached inside the ripples of Branco’s first prelude, followed by the vigorously waltzing, chiming incisiveness of the second.

The first of the Debussy works, The Sunken Cathedral, was also a revelation in that the pianist bookended its opulent languor and nebulous mysticism around a sternly rhythmic midsection: this was one striking edifice rising from the depths! Other delightful Debussy moments abounded, particularly the deviously blithe song within a song in What the West Wind Saw, and the momentary fish out of water amidst the sun-splattered ripples of Sails.

The rest of the Branco preludes glittered with minute detail. Spare, wintry impressionism moved aside for sharp-fanged, modally-tinged phantasmagoria and a slightly muted mockery of a march. The most dramatic interlude was in Branco’s Modern Ride of the Valkyries, its grim chromatics bordering on the macabre. The most technically challenging was the Preludio No. 5, Branco’s own relentlessly torrential counterpart to Debussy’s famous hailstorm shredding the vegetation.

Dantas brought equally telescopic brilliance to an old favorite of the Halloween repertoire, Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Yet not once did he go over the line into grand guignol: he left no doubt that this was a requiem. Who would have expected the carnivalesque creepiness of The Gnome to be dignified, and balanced, with just as much quasi-balletesque grace? The Old Castle may be a familiar horror theme, but Dantas’ insistently tolling low pedal notes reminded that this was in memory of a most original friend.

There were a few points where Dantas brought the menace to just short of redline – those were truly mad cows! – but otherwise, this was about poignancy and reflection. Dantas’ unwavering, perfectly articulated, otherworly chattering phrases in Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks were spine-tingling. The contrasts between the elegant Samuel Goldenberg and his lumbering namesake from the boondocks were striking yet sympathetic. Similarly, the grief in Dantas’ vast, desolate interpretation of The Catacombs was visceral, as was the unexpectedly distant horror of Baba Yaga. And he drew a straight line all the way back to Beethoven with the long crescendos and false endings after the whirling, evilly gleeful peasant dance in The Great Gate of Kiev.

After a series of standing ovations, he encored with his own gleaming, moodily Chopinesque arrangement of the Burnay Fado, from his home turf, complete with sparkly ornamentation mimicking a Portuguese twelve-string guitar. Let’s hope this individualistic rescuer of obscure and forgotten repertoire makes it back here soon.

An Urbane, Greek-Adjacent New Live Album From the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center just got back from tour in Greece…and brought a record back with them. Their new album, Odyssey – streaming at PBS – bolsters the argument that more artists should make live albums, classical ensembles included. It’s also genteel party music. 0riginally broadcast on PBS” Live From Lincoln Center, it features both standard repertoire and more obscure material diversely associated with Hellenic culture.

It begins with Tara Helen O’Connor’s dynamically swaying, often broodingly muted solo take of Debussy’s Syrinx for Flute and concludes with a gregariously cheery, occasionally beery rendition of Mendelssohn’s Octet For Strings in E-flat major. The ensemble – violinists Sean Lee, Danbi Um, Aaron Boyd and Arnaud Sussmann; violists Matthew Lipman and Paul Neubauer; and cellists David Finckel and Dmitri Atapine – have a particularly good time with the teenage composer’s clever echo effects in the second movement.

The two partitas in between have a more distinctly Greek flavor. Emily D’Angelo brings an unexpected arioso intensity to the miniatures of Ravel’s Cinq Melodies Populaires Grecques for Voice and Piano, over Wu Han’s nimble shifts from Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics to misty, muted Mediterranean balladry. Then Neubauer teams with Boyd for a quartet of short pieces from George Tsontakis” Knickknacks for Violin and Viola. The only Greek composer included on the album gets a particularly strong interpretation: with the music’s insistently rhythmic, acerbic call-and-response enhanced by excellent recording quality, the duo evoke a considerably larger ensemble.

Then they team with O’Connor for Beethoven’s Serenade in D major, which the extensive liner notes describe as “a bit of nostalgia marking the end of an era.” Well put: Mozart is cited as an influence, and the Italian baroque also seems to be a strong reference in the livelier, more balletesque movements.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – a roughly 180-member, rotating cast of world-class talent – are celebrating fifty years of exploring the vast world of small-ensemble repertoire, in intimate performances that continue year-round from their home base at Alice Tully Hall.