On hearing the greatest pianist in the world twice in one week

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Martha Argerich performing Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and conductor Antonio Pappano at the Kennedy Center on October 25 (Photo by Jati Lindsay.)

Piano fans trade accounts of Martha Argerich’s legendary cancellations like grizzled vets swap war stories. One couple from Cleveland I met this week planned an entire vacation to London around an Argerich concert a few years ago–only to arrive in England and be devastated by one of the mercurial Argentine’s last-minute withdrawals. I myself had Argerich cancel on me fifteen years ago in Boston and have not had the chance to hear her play since–that is, until last week, when I unexpectedly found myself booking a flight from Washington to Cleveland to hear arguably the greatest pianist on the planet for the second time in the span of six days.

Argerich’s tour date in Washington on October 25, with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and conductor Antonio Pappano (a joint Kennedy Center-Washington Performing Arts presentation), had long been circled on my calendar, and Argerich did not disappoint–in any sense of the word. Long into the night and well into the next day, Argerich’s bracing, ecstatic, and magisterial account of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto was still ringing in my ears.

I have cherished Argerich’s legendary recordings–explosive, tempestuous, technically and musically stunning–for decades. But I discovered to my amazement that there’s a special quality to her playing that only comes through live. Her complete mastery of her instrument gives her the freedom to fully inhabit the space of live performance in a way I’ve never encountered before: to truly be in the moment, to be preternaturally attuned to her collaborators, and to express herself in what sounds like a spontaneous outpouring of musical inspiration.

The Prokofiev was a breathtaking tour-de-force: 27 minutes of intensely concentrated astonishment. The wealth of colors emanating from Argerich’s piano was stunning, like hearing two great orchestras on stage at once. And never before I have heard the piano’s upper register played with such brilliance and clarity, yet also depth and presence of sound, as in the Prokofiev’s electrifying finale.

The next morning, the concert lingered in my mind with all the power of a febrile dream. After a performance of such life-altering force, I had to hear her again, and soon. But when, and how?

I quickly found myself scouring Argerich’s all-too-infrequent tour dates and desperately searching flight times and hotel availabilities–and ended up booking a trip to Cleveland for four days later, while keeping my fingers crossed that she’d keep the engagement. Sure, Argerich would be playing again in Washington next year, with the venerable Itzhak Perlman. But I couldn’t wait that long, and here was my chance to hear her in a duo concert with another of my favorite pianists, Sergei Babayan, presented by the Cleveland International Piano Competition. I had heard Babayan perform recently at a Phillips Collection concert at the Cosmos Club in D.C. and came away impressed by his musical intelligence and his rare command of an eclectic repertory, from Bach and Chopin to Vladmir Ryabov and Arvo Pärt. He seemed like he’d be an ideal partner.

If the Kennedy Center performance had the air of a rock concert, the capacity crowd at Severance Hall proved a bit more mellow (no one asked for an autograph at the curtain call), if no less worshipful and appreciative. In a program featuring Prokofiev transcriptions for two pianos (arranged by Babayan) and Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448, these two titans of the piano offered over two hours of unforgettable music making. This was ensemble playing without a safety net–there was never the slightest hint of caution or calculation in the performances, just free-flowing, confident, and joyous collaboration between two masters.

The highlight of the evening for me was the rich orchestral palette of Babayan’s transcription of twelve movements from Romeo and Juliet (with Argerich taking the secondo part), from the dark demonic drive of “Montagues and Capulets” to the bittersweet tenderness of “Romeo and Juliet Before Departure.” The “Aubade,” with its delicate and exquisitely poised dialogue between the two pianos, may be the most beautiful two-and-a-half minutes of music I’ve ever heard live. (In comparison, Prokofiev’s original version for mandolins and orchestra now sounds cloying.) Each movement was so full of color and individual character, and so shot through with balletic energy and an unmistakeable sense of dance.

The rapport between the two pianists through the evening felt so intuitive and natural, whether in the witty, elegant, and romantically tinged Mozart Sonata or the closing Prokofiev group (riveting transciptions from Hamlet, Eugene Onegin, and The Queen of Spades, with Argerich playing the primo part). While musical finesse, rather than sheer virtuosic display, was the order of the evening, audience members expecting the two masters to turn their pianos upside down would not have been disappointed with the carnage of the “Idée Fixe” movement from The Queen of Spades.

No one seemed to want to this magical evening to end, maybe least of all the two pianists themselves, who gifted the audience with not one but two generous encores: the Barcarole from Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 and the Waltz from his Suite No. 2.

While flying back to D.C. the next day, I couldn’t help but wonder: after Martha Argerich departs from the stage, shall we ever look upon her like again?

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More from my interview with Seong-Jin Cho

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(Harald Hoffmann/Deutsche Grammophon)

Some outtakes from my interview with Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, including his thoughts on his favorite pianist, which composer he hopes to add to his repertory, and which composer scares him.

His favorite living pianist:
Cho: “My favorite living pianist is Radu Lupu.  It’s always difficult to explain why I like this, or why I hate this, but his music is always so sincere and natural and always touched my heart.  His music influenced me a lot.”

The composer he hopes to add to his repertory:
Cho: “The composer I really want to study and play is Jean-Philippe Rameau.  He’s a French composer, Baroque composer.  Since I was 17 years old, I really liked Rameau’s music.  It’s Baroque-style music, but it has a lot of feeling inside.  It’s definitely different from Bach’s music.  I admire both composers, but Rameau has a very special feeling.  It’s quite French feeling.  And I cannot say it’s Romantic but it’s sometimes melancholic, sensitive.”

The composer who scares him:
Cho: “Brahms is one of my favorite composers.  But funnily enough, I’ve only played one piano quartet and that’s all, because I’m a little afraid of Brahms.  I’m planning to play Brahms after I become like 30 years old.  That is just my strange theory.  I need to explore the Brahms sound, which I think is very deep and very round.  For now, I can make the sound for, like, Debussy or Mozart, some lighter ones, but Brahms, it needs more weight.  I think I’m not ready yet for Brahms.  I played the “Klavierstücke,” Op. 118 and 119, in my home, and I was not satisfied.”

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And here are some striking individual moments that I wanted to highlight from Cho’s recent recording of Chopin’s Four Ballades for DG:

First Ballade (at 0:42): Listen to how Cho builds nervous tension in the first theme with his subtly flexible phrasing (compared with, say, Zimerman’s more predictable use of rubato):

 

Third Ballade (at 3:59): Notice how Cho teases out an intriguing line in the middle voices near the end of the lilting second theme.

 

Second Ballade (at 2:20): Here’s where Cho demonstrates his flat-out technical superiority: listen to how he is able to shape and contour the bass line of the explosive second theme, completely independently of what the right hand is doing, without sacrificing any of the larger gestural sweep and excitement.  Incredible.

Winning a renowned piano competition put Seong-Jin Cho on road to stardom

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(Harald Hoffmann/Deutsche Grammophon )

Nothing captures the ambivalence many musicians feel toward piano competitions — those high-stakes Olympics of the musical world — better than the reaction of the rising South Korean star Seong-Jin Cho, to winning the legendary International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015.

“I was really happy, because I wouldn’t have to play in any more competitions,” Cho recalls.

Cho, then 21, had endured three nerve-racking weeks of competition in Warsaw. He won over the 17-member jury with his rare combination of technical bravura, artistic maturity and freshness of insight across the range of Chopin’s piano writing.

“Cho was remarkable,” said Garrick Ohlsson, the 1970 Chopin competition gold medalist who served on the 2015 jury, speaking by telephone from North Carolina last month. “He was such a complete young artist.”

With his gold medal, Cho knew his immediate future was set — or as set as any young classical musician’s can be. He was propelled to overnight celebrity in his home country, and he secured major concert dates and a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. He could leave behind the pressure-filled, circuslike and often political world of piano competitions…

Read the full story here (Washington Post, July 14, 2017).

Maurizio Pollini: A Lion in Winter

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(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.

Program:
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

Encores:
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

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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?

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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

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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).