CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Pure Beauty First, Then Rage and Remembrance

It is a good season in the Washington/Baltimore area for violin lovers. We had old all-star Perlman two weeks ago, and many of the elite players will grace the local stages over the next months. Julia Fischer, Arabella Steinbacher (you may not have heard of her yet, but even if you miss her concerts at the Châteauville Foundation Maazel Theatre House, Castleton Farms on October 9th, or on October 18th at the Library of Congress you will soon!), Hilary Hahn, Midori, and Vadim Repin will make the music lover’s mouth (ears?) water. Joshua Bell will also be here – worthy of mention in particular for the Corigliano Violin Concerto that he’ll present with Marin Alsop in Baltimore on June 15th.

Thursday at the Kennedy Center’s (once again sparsely filled) Concert Hall Nikolaj Znaider had his turn. He too may not be on everyone’s radar screen yet, but he is right up there with the Repins, Vengeroffs, and Hahns of his generation of players. He just released a Beethoven and Mendelssohn concerto recording with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic (of all combos) that has earned kind words from critics (including Tim Page) – and under Leonard Slatkin’s baton the NSO and Znaider presented another staple Romantic violin concerto: Max Bruch’s.

Nikolaj ZnaiderThe Bruch concerto is one of those that may get a “oh… haven’t we heard that a few too many times already” questioning look from the hardened and more cynical concert-goers, but actualy: No. We haven’t heard it too many times yet – at least not when it is played very well. Suffice it to say that I would willingly hear it a few more times this week, the way it was presented on Thursday night. Steady but searching, ‘looking around’ was the first entry. Phenomenal the transition from the first note of the second short entry played with gusto to the flittering tail it dragged behind it. The third entry finally gets things under way in the music, and the way Znaider jumped at the notes without the playing becoming crass or vulgar was a delight. He’s not got the big tone that is Vengeroff’s, nor the stunning color palette of Repin – perhaps not even the rock-solid intonation of Akiko Suwanai - but he has bucket-loads of elegance (never mind the odd metaphor there) and a refined tone that allowed him to shine, seemingly without effort. The way he plays any one note, elicits different tones, and lets it wander through the hall is so noticeable that it borders on a miracle that it never sounded artificial, mannered, or self-conscious. Interestingly (and thankfully) he never crossed that line. That his extremely soft touches (he plays one of the most confident pianissimos I’ve heard) that emerged out of nowhere were able to impress as much as they did was in good part the achievement of Slatkin, who had the NSO tightly controlled during those moments. It more than made up for the occasional orchestral thumping in the animated sections.

Znaider, who must be upwards of 6’4", towered over the orchestra. With his extra-long suit-frock and the stiff upper torso, he looked like a European schoolmaster ca. 1870… ready to give the first bench of violinists twenty clicks with the bow-cum-ruler. It belied the flexibility of individual phrases but suited the refreshingly angular structure in which all of the music, especially the Adagio, was placed. Instead of turning the work into a hyper-Romantic piece of mush, he trusted Bruch’s written instructions – a.k.a. the score. I’ve heard the piece pulled around enough to have gotten motion sickness – with Znaider it was a clean ride.

All this may sound overly effusive – but I suppose that isn’t entirely inappropriate for a performance that was simply very good and sounded ‘right’. The Bruch violin concert itself needs no additional comment except that its very popularity and fame obscures the fact that Bruch wrote two more violin concertos that are hardly of lesser quality and should be heard far more often.

available at Amazon
J.Corigliano, Of Rage and Remembrance,
Leonardo Slatkin / NSO

Corigliano is one of the great American composers of the younger generation (40s – 60s) who knows how to combine popular appeal with the highbrow mandate. Famous for his Red Violin concerto, his Symphony No. 1 (“on A”) is only marginally less popular. Better known under its title Of Rage and Remembrance, its ‘popularity’ may not best be measured by a conservative audience’s reaction to Corigliano’s musical statement about the horrors and helplessness when being faced with AIDS among friends, but instead the fact that it has received nearly 800 performances since its premiere under Barenboim in Chicago in 1990. Leonard Slatkin, who pointed this out in his appropriately brief remarks before the performance, is a champion of Corigliano’s and it comes as a surprise that this was only the second performance of the symphony with the NSO.

It may also have been titled “Of Anger and Tearful Exhaustion”; it plays well with emotions and orchestral color. The unisono A of the opening elicits a sound from the string section that you will not likely have heard before. Fits from the timpani interrupt in a brutal way that would have done Mahler proud. The sound veers between the edged, abrasive, bombastic, and the hauntingly melodious and calm. Especially intriguing is the piano’s reoccurring Godowsky transcription of Albéniz’s melancholic Tango that evokes a pianist ‘in the apartment next door’, courtesy of Lambert Orkis who played from off stage. If I didn’t know before why Robert R. Reilly so cherishes Corigliano, I certainly do now. It’s an effectual symphony without being cheap; it’s impressive but not gratuitous. Most importantly, it contains emotional and spiritual truth.

I really hate to have to say that it was ‘risky’ or ‘gutsy’ to program the work last, without some Mozart or Tchaikovsky to follow – because that would then not give people the incentive to stay and hear it out. Indeed, if an audience cannot appreciate a work like this: music with a pulse about as close to the heart (and stomach) as it gets, I cannot appreciate the audience. People who run at the first hint of dissonance are not capable of appreciating the greater beauty of classical music. (And I am not talking about modernist works here, at all. Run to the hills at a Lee Hoiby sighting, if you so desire… but with this symphony??)

This (patronizing?) rant having been aired, I am happy to say that only a limited number of audience members left after the first half, and fewer yet during the movements. It seemed to have grabbed many of the listeners just enough at an earthy, intrinsically emotional level to pull their souls into their seats, even if their ears were already half-way to the exits. And I must say that this symphony is music (the second movement Tarantella, especially) that grabs you by the [pardon me] balls and if it doesn’t, you ain’t got any. The more plaintive third movement (Chaconne: Giulio’s Song) allowed cellists David Hardy and Glenn Garlick to shine in extensive solo and duo passages. The symphony continues in high style during the Epilogue, becoming threatening and soothing in turn. If you are not scared of a Shostakovich symphony, you’ll enjoy every bit of this one. Apparently Slatkin’s enthusiasm for the work fell on fruitful ground with the players because they seemed to willingly play the heck out of it in front of an audience that contained its creator. Still, the audience was split into those who rushed out after meager applause and those who tried to make up for that with boisterous roars of ‘bravo’.

The concerto and symphony were preceded by a full-bodied, energetic but unspectacular Brahms Tragic Overture, wherein the brass did better than in last week’s Dvořák. I know some Ionarts readers went to see the last performance of the NSO on account of our recommendation of Truls Mørk’s Elgar (and that alone); they would do well to do so again, this time for the Bruch and the Corigliano, either of which would earn the recommendation on its own merits. Ionarts is not getting soft on the NSO (there will be plenty of clunkers to come, I am sure) – this concert just happens to be rather good, too. Repeat performances will take place today at 1.30PM and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM. There’s plenty of room everywhere in the hall to accommodate all willing to come.

Read Tim Page's similarly enthusiastic review in the Washington Post here.


Anonymous said...

"No time to write short?"

Princess Alpenrose said...

EXCELLENT review, Jens. First class. Truly.

There’s so much to choose from around here, and there’s no way we could each of us go to every concert, so your and Charles’ reviews keep us plugged in and engaged in area happenings. I love it!

ps the link to “I’ve heard the piece pulled around” TOTALLY cracked me up , and your challenge re running at the first hint of dissonance, but allowing for running to the hills under other circumstances, is RIGHT ON!

ionarts rocks!

Garth Trinkl said...

A tad long for us multi-tasking working folk, but well well worth it. Don't we pay Charles, Jens, and Mark to take their time and be unusually thoughtful?

Thanks for the great review, Jens. As a former violinist (who played the Bruch, but won't be able to fit in this week's concert), I appreciated hearing your response to it, as well as the other detailed information about violinists coming to the area...

jfl said...

Quip that it may be, "anonymous", you are right. I didn't have time to write short. I was taken by the concert at the time, jotted it all down and by 4AM it was up. Keeping you and Mr. Trinkl and other multi-tasking working folk in mind, I shall be swifter, briefer, shorter in the future.


Princess Alpenrose said...

What is all the fuss about? I seriously don't think it needed cutting. Really, I don't mean that in an iongroupie way, I thought it was excellent the way it was.

Jeez, guys, take a chill pill. Or pour a cup of (non-caffeinated herbal) tea and just relax! Take some time, read what the man has to say. He's doing the best he can and a fine job at that.

PS - An astute observer might note that some of us, and not just me, tend to write (ahem!) rather some lengthy COMMENTS to ionarts posts, upon occasion ...

jfl said...

I think everyone *was* pretty chill. And I agree, the review was lengthy. No one said it was necessarily a bad review because of it. I appreciate the defense... but there are going to be times when I actually need it. This was not one of those occasions, I think.



Princess Alpenrose said...

You da boss!

Anonymous said...

Did you not feel the Corigliano has a bit too much "Hollywood" in it (the usual rap on him), or did the intensity of the work and performance transcend such considerations?