Maurizio Pollini: A Lion in Winter

(Photo by  Cosimo Filippini / DG)

I was tempted to title this post, “Should Maurizio Pollini retire?”, as a response to the click-baity Spectator review from March that called upon the legendary Italian pianist, now 75, to do just that. But it’s not for me, or any other writer, to dictate terms to Pollini, who’s certainly past his prime but has earned the right to leave the stage on his own terms. And, besides, everyone knows the answer to a headline-in-the-form-of-a-question is always “no,” so I would have been pointlessly tipping my hand.

So: after cancelling a November 2015 recital date at Strathmore, Pollini returned to Washington for the first time since 2013 with an all-Chopin recital at the Kennedy Center on May 16. The program was a familiar one: four Nocturnes, the Berceuse, and some of the large-scale Chopin pieces that Pollini has owned for decades: the Third and Fourth Ballades, the B minor Scherzo, and the Third Sonata. But what would not have been familiar to anyone who knows Pollini’s recordings but hasn’t heard him live recently was his technical fallibility, and even frailty.

Pollini no longer commands the cool Apollonian perfection — the sculptural precision and supremely controlled flexibility — that defined him as the archetypal modern (“objective”) pianist of the 20th century. There were some glaring wrong notes last night, but more than that, a general diminishment of a technique that was beyond reproach a decade or so ago (the last time I personally heard a “perfect” Pollini recital was 2002): an unevenness of touch, a flinty tone, a brusqueness that disturbed his lines, a more limited palette of colors, and an underpowering of climaxes that were was once fiercesome. Many of the challenging runs — in the Ballades, Scherzo, and Sonata — sounded either cautious or nervy. To be fair, though, Pollini remarkably saved his most technically impressive playing for end of the night, with the formidable coda of the Third Sonata emerging with clarity and sweeping grandeur.

This is the point in the review of an aging but beloved pianist where a writer typically goes on about the compensations of old age in the face of diminished powers: a new-found warmth or the wisdom of years. But that wouldn’t be quite right in Pollini’s case. For the most part, his playing was as cool and detached as ever. The Berceuse — a lullaby that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed hearing from Pollini even his prime — sounded high strung and almost hectoring. The two Op. 55 Nocturnes were similarly sharply etched and played for brisk drama. The lovely second theme of the Third Sonata’s first movement was brought out with minimal rubato and without an ounce of sentiment. On the other side of the coin, the two Op. 27 Nocturnes, which opened the recital, did sound more relaxed and even at times rhapsodic, with Pollini drawing out some duskier colors.

Likewise, there were few new insights into these pieces that Pollini has been performing for over half a century. His conceptions of these works are basically unaltered: he’s still all about intelligent organization, control, and proportion. He knows how to generate drama and excitement from pacing and structure, and he still does at the right moments, just in more measured amounts. The grand architecture of the large-scale works remains there in outline, even if it is no longer supported by an unassailable technical foundation.  He no longer over-awes with his soaring power or expressive contrasts.

If the recital had concluded with just the announced program, I would have said that the evening had left me cold and unmoved. Without his supreme technique and sheer sense of pianistic control, Pollini no longer impresses as he once does. And Pollini was always a pianist who impressed me more than he pulled at my heart strings. But something special happened in hall when Pollini — looking gaunt, slightly stooped, and frankly exhausted after the taxing Third Sonata — reemerged from the wings to play two encores: Chopin’s Third Scherzo and the First Ballade. In part, by picking such substantial encores, it seemed like he was showing that he still could do this — that he had enough left in the tank to perform two major works that most pianists would have given pride of place to on their announced programs. Though, to be fair, in his 2002 Boston recital, Pollini offered not two but five Chopin encores, including the G-minor Ballade — and didn’t seem to break a sweat.

But it was last night’s G-minor Ballade that touched me more than his 2002 version, which bowled me over back then with its authoritative command. This time, Pollini’s playing was slack and fallible, but it had a noble sense of struggle — a quality that Pollini in his prime never betrayed — that was emotional and immensely moving: as if Pollini was at once stoking old fires and raging against the dying of the light.

Nocturnes, Op. 27, Nos. 1-2
Ballade No. 3 in A-Flat Major, Op. 47
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52
Berceuse, Op. 57 in D-flat Major
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20
Nocturnes, Op. 55, Nos. 1-2
Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58

Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp minor, Op. 39
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23.

Four thoughts on the Boulder Philharmonic and opening night of the Shift Festival

The aerialists of Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance, who performed last night with the Boulder Philharmonic (photo by David Andrews)

1. On opening night of the Shift Festival at the Kennedy Center, the Boulder Philharmonic, with its nature-themed, visually rich, easy-on-the-ear program, made a persuasive case for the symphony orchestra as a kind of galvanizing force in local artistic communities.  But in a festival ostensibly devoted to showcasing the American orchestra, the Boulder Philharmonic itself was upstaged at almost every turn: by the eye-catching slideshow accompanying Stephen Lias’ All the Songs that Nature Sings; the amplified mandolin (and scintillating virtuosity) of Jeff Midkiff in his Mandolin Concerto; and the high-flying aerialists in the staging of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

2.  The Boulder Philharmonic’s program drew exclusively from the broadly populist tradition of American music, with the neo-romantic pictorialism of Lias; the bluegrass-influenced work of Midkiff; the lush, cinematic writing of Steve Heitzeg’s “Ghosts of the Grasslands”; and, of course, that quintessential work of Americana, Appalachian Spring (performed here in its more streamlined and sentimental concert version).  Newcomers would be forgiven for thinking that American concert hall music was somewhat anodyne and monolithic.

3.  The staging of Appalachian Spring by the Boulder-based aerial troupe, Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance, was a fascinating re-imagining of this classic work.  I was particularly struck by how the emotional openness and vulnerability of the original Martha Graham choreography found its analogue in the literal physical vulnerability and risk-taking of the five aerialists.  (“My palms were sweating,” a friend in the audience confessed.)  It was undeniably an impressive feat of athleticism and daring, but the aerial dance form had its (understandable) limits in expressing the music.  The choreography was much better at capturing moments of stillness and unleashing short bursts of movement than reflecting sustained passages of fast music (like, for example, the long arcing lines of “Simple Gifts”).  Transitions were slow and methodical (again, understandably), and the form didn’t really allow for the quick grouping and re-groupings of dancers.

4.  There was a strong, vocal turnout in the hall last night, and the ever popular scarves were back.  But ticket sales have been much weaker for the remaining three concerts, perhaps confirming my suspicion that many in the audience came for the aerialists.  The Kennedy Center appears to have closed off the upper tier of the concert hall for the upcoming Atlanta Symphony concert, and the upper two tiers for the North Carolina Symphony and the Knights (eta: and is now papering the house for tonight’s NCS concert).

Fidelio or Leonore?

Marjorie Owens (Leonore), Celena Shafter (Marzelline), Eric Halvarson (Rocco) and conductor Antony Walker at the Washington Concert Opera.

Washington Concert Opera’s recent exhumation of Leonore–well cast and persuasively performed–raised some fascinating questions about the relative merits of the original 1805 version of Beethoven’s lone opera versus the work we know today as Fidelio.

The original version, spread out over three acts, tilts more toward domestic comedy. Whole ensembles, with some delightful music, were cut from the 1814 version: the first act trio for Marzelline, Jaquino, and Rocco, and the second act duet for Leonore and Marzelline. There were numerous other changes, both musical and dramaturgical, including significant revisions to Leonore’s aria and Florestan’s monologue, and the reversal of the opera’s first two numbers.

My colleague, Anne Midgette, in her Post review, expressed her affection for the 1805 Leonore, with its “gentler progression” from domestic comedy to heroic drama. Fidelio may be the “greater” work, Midgette acknowledges, but it also betrays the strain of years of revisions that resulted in an opera that shows its seams.

Another colleague, Charles Downey, in a Facebook note accompanying his Washington Classical Review piece, advocated a hybrid approach to the work that restores parts of the 1805 version: “start with the Fidelio Overture, restore all the cut ensembles, original version of Leonore’s big aria, but keep the 1814 version of the last act. Thank you.”

For me, the 1814 Fidelio will always have pride of place, as the greater work of musical drama. As enjoyable as the cut ensembles are, I don’t really need to be spending all that time on domestic trivialities and prefer the tighter dramatic focus of the revision. The numerous revisions to the libretto also give the work greater strength and clarity (such as properly motivating the prisoners chorus). While Midgette has suggested to me that she wished Beethoven had left the 1805 Leonore and written three more operas instead, I’m glad to have Fidelio in its final form, as awkwardly and painfully wrought as it is.

Jörg Widmann and the Pacifica Quartet at the Library of Congress

Jörg Widmann (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

Pacifica Quartet
Jörg Widmann, Clarinet

Haydn, String Quartet in G, Op. 76, No. 1
Jörg Widmann, Jagdquartett [String Quartet No. 3]
Carl Maria von Weber, Clarinet Quintet in B-flat, Op. 34

Jörg Widmann is a busy man. One of Germany’s leading classical composers, he also maintains a full slate of international engagements as a solo clarinetist. Both sides of Widmann’s musicianship were on display Monday night in an inspired concert with the Pacifica Quartet at the Library of Congress.

As a composer, Widmann engages in an intense but often playful dialogue with the Western musical tradition, and his “Jagdquartett” (“Hunt Quartet”) from 2003 is no exception. The work, given a manic and bristling performance by the Pacifica Quartet, is a deconstruction of the stylized hunting music of the classical period…

Read the full review here (Washington Post, January 24, 2017).

Isabelle Faust’s illuminating solo Bach at the Phillips Collection

Isabelle Faust (Photo by Marco Borggreve)

J.S. Bach, Partita for Solo Violin No. 3 in E, BWV 1006
J.S. Bach, Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3 in C, BWV 1005
J.S. Bach, Partita for Solo Violin No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004

After the final note of Isabelle Faust’s memorable recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday, the German violinist held the audience in rapt silence for what seemed like an eternity. That moment – really about half a minute – allowed for a deep appreciation of what had just passed: an hour and a quarter of intensely concentrated and illuminating solo Bach.

Faust performed two of Bach’s solo Partitas and one Sonata, all without intermission. Her Bach had none of the romantic gloss or mechanical perfection that other violinists bring to this repertory. Instead, her instrument sang with a natural eloquence and an austere beauty, speaking not of Olympian mastery but of a humane approach to these towering masterworks, full of freshness and vitality. Faust’s technical security, to be sure, was never in question. But there was a touching vulnerability and even humility to her performance – in Faust’s directness and emotional honesty, in her willingness to show a sense of struggle.  This was Bach on a very human scale – an act of secular pilgrimage.

The recital ended with a searching account of the monumental Chaconne that concludes the D-minor Partita. For all of Faust’s command of the movement’s progression of ideas and sense of drama, it was the quieter moments that proved the most moving: her whispered mezza voce after the music modulates to a sunny D major, and her artlessly inquisitive probing of the unexpected harmonies Bach passes through as he returns home to D minor. Through her eloquent introspection, Faust constructed the ideal musical space for a Sunday afternoon after a cataclysmic week in Washington: a cathedral of contemplation.

Pianist and conductor diverge, clash during their BSO debuts

Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Photo by Paul Mitchell)

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
Johannes Debus, Conductor
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Pianist

Rossini, Overture to The Barber of Seville
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat, Op. 19
Brahms, Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

It was a tale of two debuts. On Saturday night, French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and German conductor Johannes Debus made their first appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Strathmore. The program of Rossini, Beethoven and Brahms in itself was nothing remarkable. But the standard-repertory evening offered a canvas for a sometimes uneasy and often fascinating clash of artistic temperaments from the debutants.

Read the full review here (Washington Post, January 22, 2017).

The Dictator’s Wife at WNO is a flawed, dramatically flat new opera

The Dictators Wife 1 - photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg
This photo makes the opera look much more dramatic than it actually is.  (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.)

The Dictator’s Wife
Washington National Opera
Music by Mohammed Fairouz, Libretto by Mohammed Hanif
Kennedy Center Family Theater

Mohammed Fairouz’s music for The Dictator’s Wife, the new hour-long work premiered by the Washington National Opera as part of its American Opera Initiative Festival, is unremarkable and mostly forgettable.  But the real problem with the opera is Mohammed Hanif’s flat and dramatically inept libretto.  Hanif is a respected British-Pakistani writer, who made his name first as a journalist and then as an award-winning novelist.  But his disappointing work for The Dictator’s Wife makes one suspect that Hanif is familiar with neither Aristotle’s Poetics nor the time-tested principles of a well-constructed Broadway musical.

The Dictator’s Wife is based on a dramatic monologue Hanif wrote in 2008 about an unnamed wife of a third-world dictator.  In advance press, the opera’s creative team (and/or the WNO press office) appeared to be playing up the parallels with Melania Trump, but the opera’s actual setting most closely resembles Hanif’s native Pakistan or another dictatorship in the developing world.  (Dexter Filkins has suggested that the titular character most closely resembles the wife of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Sebha, while Fairouz has also mentioned Pakistani General Zia.)

Hanif’s libretto for The Dictator’s Wife, though, betrays its origins in a monologue and suffers from some basic dramaturgical problems:

1.  The opera’s central character, the First Lady, remains almost completely undefined.  The audience is given no sense of her back story and no understanding of her motivations and objectives.  Despite being on stage for almost the entire hour-long opera, she is never given the equivalent of an “I Want” song, or anything else that could tell us who she is, where she is coming from, and what she wants out of life.  She is not so much a caricature of a dictator’s wife as a complete cipher.  The libretto does gesture toward some psychological turmoil–some kind of inner conflict between the First Lady’s embrace of her glamorous lifestyle and anguish over the plight of her country.  But that element is woefully underdeveloped.

2.  There is no real conflict in the opera.  The characters of the three protestors are meant to act as the vox populi and represent opposition to the dictator’s regime.  But because the dictator himself remains off-stage for the entire opera and because the First Lady isn’t the figure oppressing them (she invites them into her palace for tea and conversation), the story never erupts into direct, interpersonal conflict.  The “vox populi” characters themselves are also flattened and oddly defined through caricature as obnoxious “professional protestors,” robbing them of dramatic power.  The only moment of genuine dramatic frisson comes when the First Lady rushes to stop one of the invited protestors from going into the bathroom where the unseen dictator has holed himself up.  That is the only time in the opera when characters with opposing objectives come into direct conflict on stage.  Literally the only one.

3.  The opera is deeply unfunny.  The program notes call The Dictator’s Wife a “bitingly satirical work,” and Hanif aims his satirical pen at not only the rich and powerful but also the professional protest class, the clueless and self-serving international development community, and regime bootlickers and sycophants.  But Hanif really needs to hire someone to punch up his jokes.  His ongoing gag about the protestors smelling bad gets old real fast, and none of his jokes really land.  The audience sat in stony silence through most of the opera.

4.  The opera’s resolution comes out of nowhere.  At the end of the opera, the First Lady, after mutilating her face with a knife, is given an Evita-like “11 o’clock” number, where she addresses the nation and finally expresses sympathy for the plight of the people.  But this climactic moment feels almost completely unmotivated. Her psychological torment is only barely hinted at for most of the opera: there is no arc to follow, no gradual breakdown of her character to trace, no inciting event that triggers what feels like tacked-on, artificial drama.

This project is in dire need of a dramaturg and/or a script doctor, and the talk of producing the work more widely as a musical should be considered a pipe dream, as there is not much here for a popular audience to sink its teeth into, aside from self-importance.

As the Washington National Opera seems to be embracing topicality for its American Opera Initiative, the company may as well just go ahead and commission a Black Mirror opera from Charlie Brooker.  That way, the libretto would have a chance of actually being interesting, and Brooker would be able to find the most sympathetic audience imaginable for his hating on social media–the aging opera-going demographic.