Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Letter V Classical Radio this week

A grand tour of piano music in the 19th century, featuring one the preeminent virtuosos of the romantic era, Ferruccio Busoni, playing his transcription of the Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s Partita in D minor, and performances on early concert grands built by Érard and Chickering – plus, a royal visitation by Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, the most musically gifted blue-blood in European history, a pianist and composer much admired by Beethoven and Schumann.

Jan. 29
11 a.m.-2 p.m. EST
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Chopin: Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20
Alexander Paley, piano (Blüthner)

Chopin: Ballade in G minor, Op. 23

Bella Davidovich, piano (Newton Classics)

Grieg: “Lyric Pieces” – 
“Cradle Song,” Op. 68, No. 5
“Wedding Day at Troldhaugen,” Op. 65, No. 6
“Evening in the Mountains,” Op. 68, No. 4
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano (EMI Classics)

Past Masters:
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 – Chaconne
(transcription by Ferruccio Busoni)
Ferruccio Busoni,
Duo-Art piano roll
(first issued 1925)

Schumann: “Fantasiestücke”
Marc-André Hamelin, piano (Hyperion)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto
No. 3 in C minor
Fazil Say, piano
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra/
Gianandrea Noseda (Naïve)

Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia: Piano Quartet
in F minor, Op. 6
Horst Göbel, piano
Camerata Quartet members (Thorofon)

Liszt: “Les Années de Pèlerinage” (Book 1: Switzerland) – 
“Vallée d’Obermann”
Carole Carniel, piano (Érard, 1840)

Louis Moreau Gottschalk: “La Brise (Valse de Concert)”
Lambert Orkis, piano (Chickering, 1865)
(Smithsonian Institution)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Shanghai Quartet

with Michael Tree, viola
Jan. 25, University of Richmond

This season’s visit by the Shanghai Quartet to the University of Richmond, played to near-full house in the Modlin Arts Center’s Camp Concert Hall, proved to be meatier, both in content and execution, than most of the programs that the ensemble has presented here in recent years.

This program was framed by two works of near-epic proportions: Beethoven’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127, and Brahms’ Quintet in F major, Op. 88, the latter with Michael Tree, formerly of the Guarneri Quartet, playing second viola.

The first, and in some ways the most elusive, of Beethoven’s late quartets, Op. 127 is at times as tumultuous as the composer’s most in-your-face orchestral music, and at other times rarified to the point of other-worldiness. These two modes of expression sometimes coexist in uneasy proximity, notably in the finale. Throughout the work, string sound see-saws from highly refined to earthy, even (ideally) gritty.

The Shanghai rode this musical bronco mostly in the saddle (there were a couple of minor spills), and with considerable assertiveness. The foursome – violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – produced a robust collective sound, rooted in Tzavaras’ massively sonorous bass lines, that served to heighten contrasts with quieter or more finely drawn passages.

Their one interpretive misstep in the Beethoven was a scherzo whose tempo was so speedy that string figurations inevitably sounded smeared. 

The Brahms quintet, while not as long as the Beethoven, is at least as grand-scaled. Its opening allegro is one of the longest movements that Brahms composed, all but daring interpreters to maintain continuity through an eventful but rather meandering development section. Its slow movement, a soulfully lyrical adagio interrupted twice by a trio section from a missing scherzo, may be the most episodic music of the mature Brahms.

The Shanghai and Tree – he playing what must be one of the largest violas in captivity – rose to Brahms’ various challenges in a performance of enveloping warmth and carefully calibrated passion.

Between those two behemoths, the Shanghai reprised one of its mainstay miniatures, Joaquín Turina’s “La oración del torero” (“The Toreador’s Prayer”), colorful and cannily dramatized music that the group played with spontaneity and go-for-broke expressiveness, but without a hint of coarseness.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: Rachel Barton Pine

Jan. 24, Virginia Commonwealth University

Rachel Barton Pine’s performance in VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Music Series series was as much a reunion with an old friend as it was a violin recital. (Of course, not many old friends come calling with a 1742 Guarneri in hand.)

In her fifth appearance here since 1999, Pine ranged pretty widely across the repertory, from Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1 in F minor, a stark and portentous evocation of wartime violence and suffering, to Antonio Bazzini’s comically frenzied “Dance of the Goblins.” The 40-year-old, Chicago-born violinist also was a personable and informative tour guide in her comments between selections.

Pianist Matthew Hagle was a more than supportive accompanist, adding depth and atmosphere to the Prokofiev and a full palette of tone color to Franck’s Sonata in A major and a set of lullabies.

The Franck was the program’s musical highlight. Pine essayed this familiar sonata with authority and sensitivity to French high-romantic style and expressive rhetoric. She also summoned the richest array of tone and color from her violin in this piece.

The instrument’s subtler qualities were not much called for in the Prokofiev sonata (except in its muted “wind in the graveyard” effects) or in Schubert’s Duo in A major, and the fiddle’s brilliance at high volume was not showcased in the lullabies.

Pine began collecting lullabies for violin after the birth of her daughter; she’s up to about 150 by now. The pieces she chose for this program – Brahms’ familiar “Wegenlied” in Albert Spalding’s arrangement, Eugène Ysaÿe’s “Rêve d’Enfant” (“Child’s Dream”), Rebecca Clarke’s Lullaby (1918) and “Mother and Child” from William Grant Still’s Suite for violin and piano (1943) – were, for the most part, moodily wistful in expression and nuanced in voicing.

Two of Pine’s selections were directly linked to her Guarneri. The instrument was formerly owned by one of the first women to achieve prominence as a violinist, Marie Soldat-Roeger (1863-1955), who performed for and with Brahms; and earlier by Bazzini, who may well have devised the tonal and technical pyrotechnics of “Dance of the Goblins” on this fiddle.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

City Opera redux?

The New York Times’ Michael Cooper reports on the ongoing bidding war for the remaining assets of the now-defunct New York City Opera – principally, it seems, the company’s name and stellar history. Two bidders offer $1.25 million and $1.5 million. Questions arise about both:


Thursday, January 22, 2015

The 'other' Steinway arrives

A new Hamburg Steinway concert grand piano is scheduled for delivery to the University of Richmond this week. It is believed to be the first instrument by the German maker that will be in regular use in a Richmond concert venue.

The piano, which cost $213,196, was purchased with funds from the university’s dean of arts and sciences.

“The tone of the Hamburg was well suited to Camp Concert Hall” in the Modlin Arts Center, says Jeffrey Riehl, interim chair of the UR music department. He characterizes the piano’s tone as “clear, resonant, and ringing[,] with an excellent balance between the bass and treble,” adding that its sound is compatible with that of an American-made Steinway already owned by the university.

Faculty pianists Richard Becker and Joanne Kong, members of a piano selection committee, “had sterling experiences with Hamburgs in the past that made them quite eager to have one,” Riehl says. The group also wanted performers to have an alternative to a Steinway D, the concert grand in widest use in major U.S. concert halls.

Another consideration was the contractual obligation of many touring pianists to perform on Steinways.

While the Hamburg Steinway will be new to the Richmond concert scene, audiences in the area have had considerable exposure to other German-made pianos. Bon Air Presbyterian Church owns a Bechstein, which has been used regularly in concerts by the Richmond Chamber Players, Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia and other performers. Alexander Paley frequently plays a Blüthner piano in his Richmond festival.

UR’s Hamburg Steinway is scheduled for its public christening in a recital by Becker at 3 p.m. Feb. 1 – assuming, Riehl says, that the pianist believes the instrument has “settled in enough” in its new environment. It also will be played in recitals by Paul Hanson, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23; Barry Hannigan, 7:30 p.m. March 2; and by Kong in a trio performance with violinist Daisuke Yamamoto and cellist Neal Cary, 7:30 p.m. March 23. All four will be in Camp Concert Hall, without admission charge.

It’s not known whether Hélène Grimaud, the celebrated French pianist performing in a ticketed Modlin Arts Presents program at 7:30 p.m. April 22, will choose to play the instrument.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Letter V Classical Radio this week

Sampling the latest crop of classical recordings, including well-loved and reimagined Mozart, a radical new Vivaldi “Four Seasons,” and generous helpings of music from and about France. 

Jan. 22
11 a.m.-2 p.m. EST
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216
Rachel Barton Pine, violin
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/
Neville Marriner

Fauré: Piano Trio
in D minor, Op. 120
Horszowski Trio

Bruce Mahin: “Préludes de Paris” – Nos. 6-8
Martin Jones, piano

Ricardo Castro Herrera: “Vals Capricho”
Joel Fan, piano
Northwest Sinfonietta/Christophe Chagnard
(Reference Recordings)

Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 (“Trout”)
Menahem Pressler, piano
Ebène Quartet members
Benjamin Berlioz, double-bass

Vivaldi: “The Four Seasons” – “Summer”
Midori Seiler, violin
Akademie für alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi)

Chausson: Piano Trio
in G minor, Op. 3
Trio Solisti

Mozart: Sinfonia concertante in D major for two flutes and orchestra
(arrangement of Sonata for two pianos, K. 448,
by Stephen Dodgson)
Robert Stallman, flutes
Czech Chamber Orchestra/Ondřej Kukal
(Bogner’s Cafe)

* * * 

If you think the Seiler-Akademie für alte Musik recording of “The Four Seasons” goes where no Vivaldi has gone before, wait till you see and hear it performed in this “choreographed concert,” staged by Juan Cruz Diaz de Garaio Esnaola:


Monday, January 19, 2015

Musical chairs

The time has come, I think, for a round of musical chairs at the Richmond Symphony: Repositioning its string sections with an ear toward boosting and enriching bass sound.

The usual full-sized complement of strings in this orchestra is 12 first violins, 10 second violins, eight violas, eight cellos and six double-basses. However balanced that may appear in principle, it is not balanced in practice – at least not in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, where the full symphony currently stages all of its local concerts.

As I remarked in reviewing the weekend’s Masterworks program (see previous post), low strings sound weaker than high strings in this hall, even when the fiddles are played within the acoustical shell behind the stage’s proscenium arch. When the strings are moved beyond the arch on the extended stage, as they are for music that requires enlarged woodwind, brass and percussion sections, or for works performed with the Richmond Symphony Chorus, the relative weakness of bass string sound is more pronounced.

When this was observed during orchestra sound checks prior to the reopening of the renovated hall in 2009, the theater’s acoustical consultants said that adjusting the overhead “clouds” and/or tweaking the hall’s acoustical enhancement system would ease or solve the problem.

Five and a half years later, the problem persists. So does the issue of deficient projection and tone quality in piano sound when the instrument occupies the standard front-and-center position with the orchestra on the extended stage – the usual layout in large-scale, late-romantic/early modern piano concertos.

Adam Golka’s sometimes inaudible playing in Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto was the latest instance of a pianist being overbalanced by the orchestra in this hall. Previous victims include Jon Nakamatsu, Jeremy Denk, Awadagin Pratt and Dmitri Shteinberg, all of whom are high-powered, assertive performers.

Perhaps there is as yet untried adjusting and tweaking to be done; but I wouldn’t count on it. I’m pretty sure that, by now, what we hear is what we get as long as the symphony performs in the Carpenter Theatre.

So, sound-adjustment duty falls to the orchestra.

The standard seating arrangement for strings in the Richmond Symphony, like most American orchestras (but not all – see photo), places the violins to the left of the conductor, and violas, cellos and double-basses to the right.

Leading Central European ensembles – the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Czech Philharmonic – regularly use “classical” string placement: first violins to the left, second violins to the right, violas and cellos behind the violin sections, with double-basses behind the cellos or on risers at the back of the orchestra (standard practice in Vienna).

That arrangement serves to clarify the musical exchanges between first and second violins that figure prominently in the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – that’s why it’s termed classical. It also puts low-string sound at the aural center or heart of the ensemble, which contributes to the richness and body of string sound so prized in the Vienna Phil and other European orchestras.

I don’t know whether such placement would enhance lower-register fiddle sound with the Richmond Symphony in the Carpenter Theatre; but I think it’s well worth trying – especially as the present arrangement is so chronically prone to imbalance.

And the piano problem?

The symphony may have solved that, at least short-term, by having gone through most of the biggest, loudest concertos in recent years. The popular piano concertos it hasn’t played lately – Mozart, the first three Beethovens, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, the Brahms Second – as well as the modern ones likely to be programmed here, are scored for chamber- to standard-scaled orchestras, and so shouldn’t necessitate extending the stage.

Just steer piano concertos away from programs with space-consuming music, such as big choral works and pieces that call for lots of percussion or oversized wind and brass sections requiring enlarged string sections to balance them.

Want a concerto alongside “Ein Heldenleben” or “Carmina burana?” Book a violinist.