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Interview with Pinchas Zukerman

Pinchas ZukermanEarlier today I had the opportunity to interview Pinchas Zukerman for WGMS' "Classical Conversations". This follows an interview with Ivan Fischer and one with Leonard Slatkin (due to go up in December).

This Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, Pinchas Zukerman will step into the void that Rostropovich’s cancellation of his series of Shostakovich programs with Maxim Vengeroff and Martha Argerich left (Yo-Yo Ma is still scheduled to perform). He will do so with an entirely new program – The Vorspiel to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Bruch’s über-gorgeous Kol Nidrei with cellist Amanda Forsyth as the soloist, conducting as the soloist in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No.5 and closing with Beethoven’s Second Symphony.

The question for the ticket holders that were looking forward to Vengeroff, Argerich, and Rostropovich’s Shostakovich must be, why no semblance to the original program was preserved – especially since the concerts were advertised as such until the day the cancellation was made public. Zukerman’s answer sheds light on that question: He was not asked to substitute for “Slava” (“You cannot replace Mr. Rostropovich”) but to fill a gap while the NSO management is trying to preserve the Rostropovich/Shostakovich festival in its integrity, to reprogram it at a future date when (if) Rostropovich is again fit to perform. (WPAS apparently helped out with the last minute substitution.) Washington ‘is an old friend’ to Zukerman; almost like a second home (Zukerman knows the NSO for almost 45 years) and feels warmly embraced by the audience, so he was happy to jump into the breach since he had an available free week. He reminisces at length about his memories of playing in Washington (at the Kennedy Center, at Dumbarton Oaks) over the last three decades and about his musical friends in this town.

Zukerman on Ionarts:

Jens F. Laurson, Itzhak Perlman: A Star Flickering, Not Shining (April 2006)

Jens F. Laurson, Raff Time for Bach as Zukerman Heralds Harold (October 2005)

Jens F. Laurson, Shostakovich Postponed, Zukerman to the Rescue (November 2006)

Zukerman in Washington:

NSO Performance of Wagner, Bruch, Mozart, Beethoven (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, November 2, 3, 4, 2006)

WGMS Recital at Strathmore with Bach, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich (Friday, December 1, 2006)

Zukerman Chamber Players in Mozart & Dvořák at the Terrace Theater (Friday, March 4, 2007)

On the question about the difference between conducting and performing he reveals that, although he has been conducting since 1972, it has taken ten to fifteen years to feel comfortable on the podium. Now it is an expansion and extension of his music making; almost like playing enlarged chamber music, except that he happens to be beating it, instead of playing it. He has no plans, however, to expand the conducting vis-à-vis playing; dividing between his conducting and soloist duties in the same ratio as he always has.

Since the featured cellist Amanda Forsyth is his wife, I ask him if he ever feels that listeners or critics might conclude “Nepotism!” before having giving the performance a chance to proof itself. Zukerman is not too concerned with that, stating up front that if he did not think she couldn’t do it and stand on her own two feet, he wouldn’t program her. “If I didn’t think she was a phenomenal player, believe me, she wouldn’t be playing! That’s about honesty to the music... I’ve been this way with wives – and it’s the same thing with my daughter, who is a singer [Arianna Zukerman, reviewed on Ionarts last December], or friends.” Their relationship – professional and personal – is one where both can and do tell each other the flaws they hear in the other’s playing, Zukerman claims, which he extols as a particular pleasure in cooperating with another musician.

Since there have been some remarks about ‘HIP’ music-making by Zukerman (Charles has commented on them, reviewing Victoria Mullova’s second to last CD on Onyx), I can’t help but probe a little. His Bach Viola da Gamba Sonatas performance for WPAS (December 1st) is just the way to do it – and hearing him go off with conviction and passion on the “garbage” that is the theory of vibrato not having been widely employed until after the second world war is the interviewer’s equivalent of hitting the jackpot. After saying “let’s not get into it, too much”, he speaks a solid five minutes about his reasoning.

“I call it a slight furuncle… it’s like a diseased little aspect of what we are as a society – and hopefully we will find real medication for it to go away in the future. And I can’t believe it will last very long. It can’t.”

When a composer of merit says “non-vibrato”, it’s a specific indication to the practitioner for a specific color they want in that particular spot. Like a ‘forte’ or ‘piu mosso’ or ‘ponticello’. No composer, nobody, wrote ‘non-vibrato’ for the sake of being ‘authentic’. “That’s a fact – a theoretical fact, but also a composer’s fact. Ask any composer of merit and they’ll tell you that. And if they don’t, their music is not listenable.” “Non-vibrato is like making a picture without ever taking the pencil off the paper. What kind of picture would you be getting!?”

We’ll be able to look forward to getting the picture with vibrating Beethoven et al. on Thursday.


The audio file of the WGMS interview can be downloaded as an mp3 or Windows Media Player file at these links.

Spooky Tales from the Good Sports at the NSO

Master Ionarts entering the Concert HallSome professional musicians at the level of the players in a major symphony orchestra probably resent having to play family concerts. Happily for those of us who have families, some do not. (No, I do not take Master Ionarts to regular concerts, a trend that Brian at the fine Out West Arts disparaged yesterday.) So, thanks to the members of the National Symphony who took the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon, not only to play a short program of spooky music for Halloween, but to do so (mostly) in costumes. Master Ionarts (costumed as Mater, the tow truck in Cars) and I were there with an impressive crowd of Harry Potters, princesses, devils, lions, ninjas, ghosts, and goblins and their parents.

To the bass-heavy introduction of "In the Hall of the Mountain King" (from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite), the treble instruments crept to their places, led by principal second violinist Marissa Regni (a whoopi cushion, complete with flatulent sound effect). Associate conductor Emil de Cou (a white lab-coated mad scientist) rolled a stretcher on the stage and brought a last-row second violinist (Skeletor) to life. Mentions for good costumes go to harpist Dotian Levalier (a blue-robed sorceror who cast spells around the house before the concert) and one of the bass players (the bemustached Borat from Kazahkstan). The program combined classical works with scary themes and excerpts of horror film scores, like the second selection, the title music from Max Steiner's score for King Kong.

Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef (a fetching purple gypsy) mistuned her famous violin for the Saint-Saëns Danse macabre, op. 40. The clattering col legno effect from the strings seemed to please the skeletal figures in the chorister seating to either side of the stage (patrons left over from the last Friday matinee, as de Cou quipped). Parts of John Williams's score for Harry Potter and the "Witch's Ride" from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel provided some ear-pleasing effects before the meat of the concert.

National Symphony Orchestra in costume

The main attraction was a charming reading of Dukas's Goethe-inspired scherzo known as The Sorceror's Apprentice. The score featured fine playing from principal bassoonist Sue Heineman, herself costumed as Mickey Mouse was in the Sorceror's Apprentice sequence in Fantasia, with a broom somehow protruding from the end of her instrument. Master Ionarts most enjoyed this music, of which I am going to give him a copy to play in the little CD player in his room. We galumphed our way back to the car humming the broom theme. Although Master Ionarts liked the Saint-Saëns music, all the talk of skeletons, which he finds very scary this Halloween, made him uncomfortable.

Emil de Cou's genial and respectful narration at the microphone was appreciated by all the parents, I am sure. I have never heard a more delicate explanation of what the music represents in the final two selections, Bernard Herrmann's famous music for the shower scene in Psycho ("Norman Bates surprises Janet Leigh and . . . makes quite a mess in the shower") and the Witches' Sabbath movement of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. In the latter piece, principal percussionist F. Anthony Ames (a murderous demon-clown) stood on a ladder to strike the tubular bells with mallets, to intone midnight, something that Master Ionarts immediately mentioned to his mom when we got home.

Best of all, as we walked out and ever since, Master Ionarts has pestered me about when we are going back to see the orchestra again. Obsessed with repetition as are people his age, he wants to hear the same concert, exactly the same, again. While I can't give him that, you can be sure that we will be reviewing the NSO children's concerts scheduled for January. So, thanks to all of you musicians who get children interested in classical music, especially if it means wearing a costume while you play Dukas.



Available at Amazon:
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Osvaldo Golijov, Ainadamar, Dawn Upshaw, Atlanta Symphony, Robert Spano (released on May 9, 2006)
Although I never attended an actual performance, I sat in on a rehearsal in the final week before the premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's one-act opera Ainadamar at Santa Fe Opera two seasons ago. I have expressed some reservations about Golijov's music and noted that reaction to his brand of crossover sound is quite different outside the United States (and there have been American critics less than enchanted by the use of Latin American rhythms and instruments in crossover music). Still, I found the score of Golijov's opera on the death of Federico García Lorca to be pleasantly seductive. The Santa Fe production was beautiful, principally because of the set designed by California-based graffiti artist Gronk, who is responsible for designing this CD's cover art. Golijov's opera is doing as well as he could have hoped, I think, after its disastrous premiere. In the revised version engineered by Peter Sellars at Santa Fe, the opera has had concert performances at the Ravinia Festival and the Ojai Festival (Andrew Clark wrote a perceptive review for the Financial Times) this summer and will be staged at Cincinnati Opera in 2009.

In the year after that Santa Fe staging, most of the cast (including conspicuously silent Friend of Ionarts Anne-Carolyn Bird) went to Atlanta to make a recording with the Atlanta Symphony under Robert Spano. Golijov had reshaped the opera in Santa Fe, reportedly right up to opening night, and he continued to tinker with it during the recording process. That information comes from an article about conducting by Justin Davidson (Measure for Measure) in the August 21, 2006 issue of The New Yorker, which is largely a profile of Spano. (The magazine has a video excerpt of various conductors online, with Davidson's commentary.) The opera may never be "finished" for Golijov, but at least there is now a more or less definitive version on CD.

Kelley O'Connor and Dawn Upshaw in Ainadamar, 2005, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2005
Kelley O'Connor and Dawn Upshaw in Ainadamar, Santa Fe Opera, photo by Ken Howard © 2005
The opera loses something without the visual beauty of the Santa Fe staging. This is especially true of the Gunshot Interlude, which leads into the Third Image: on stage, Lorca and the other two victims are shot in a balletic sequence -- being shot, falling down, dying, standing up again, when the cycle starts over, as if time were stuck in a terrible loop (Sellars has likened it to watching the same disaster clip on CNN over and over). The effect is dramatically weakened, slightly, with only the sounds, and in general I am not sure what impact this recording would make on a listener unfamiliar with the piece as live theater.

However, Ainadamar has considerable appeal and will likely make a nice choice for sultry evening background sound (easy on the ears, by comparison with many other modern operas, certainly), beyond the growing market of those who have seen the opera staged. If nothing else, the price of the CD is justified by the opportunity to hear the final trio ("Venga, tome su mano" and "Doy mi sangre") as Margarita (Dawn Upshaw) is united in death with her beloved student Nuria (soprano Jessica Rivera) and the shade of Lorca (the unclassifiable Kelley O'Connor).

After my experiment with teaching William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience in class last year, I am going to devote some time this year to García Lorca and Ainadamar, perhaps combined with Silvestre Revueltas's Homenaje a García Lorca and Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children. Since one of the supposed appeals of crossover music is to draw in younger listeners, I like to find out what my students think of it. In my experience, students approach this music more or less the same way as they do the Four Seasons or Beethoven's ninth symphony, that is, with a lot of skepticism. The fact that it incorporates "popular" idioms does nothing to recommend it.

A Chelsea Swing

In addition to the Brice Marden exhibit at MoMA, I also got to see Anish Kapoor’s Sky Mirror, at Rockefeller Center, before it was removed on the 28th. Public art is a most difficult process. The journey from design, funding, and installation can be a perilous one; especially if the funding falls through at the last minute, or the public revolts.

In the case of Sky Mirror, everything has gone smoothly. The public loves it! It’s a crowd-pleaser: I liked it, too. I’d go further but Tyler @ Modern Art Notes has a great take on it.

Anish KapoorAVAM@Eller

Thursday night Andrew Edlin Gallery graciously hosted a gathering of NYC area friends of the American Visionary Art Museum. Edlin is also currently exhibiting work by Henry Darger; some small drawings from the family estate not seen before.

Lisa Yuskavage

There’s always something to see in Chelsea. Lisa Yuskavage has new work at David Zwirner. The paintings look great: big, voluptuous, lusciously painted; even the fruit seems ready to give birth.

Some new construction has debuted this season: Marianne Boesky has unveiled a beautiful big new space, Gagosian Gallery has launched a new airport terminal on 21st street, and there is a new facade for Gladstone and Metro Pictures.

Gagosian on 21st St.Charles Garabedian

Paula Cooper has a nice selection of Dan Flavin, the original painter of light, and there are gorgeous video projections by Jennifer Steinkamp at Lehmann Maupin, of undulating and cascading fabrics.

Charles Garabedian’s images have grown on me. It took a while, but his latest show, up now at Betty Cuningham, one of my favorite galleries to visit, looks quite good.

The images I saw of Keith Mayerson’s paintings online didn’t look anywhere near as good as they do in person at Derek Eller: some solid paintings, renditions of photos of movie stills and popular culture. Also on 27th Street at Winkleman/Plus Ultra you’ll find Rosemarie Fiore’s very cool fireworks drawings, made by controlling the blast, resulting in some amazing colors and other residual effects.

Rosemarie Fiore@Winkleman/Plus Ultra

Ending on a sad note, my favorite place to have lunch in Chelsea, the Wild Lily, will close at the end of December. It was a lovely place to sip tea and organize my notes. Crap!

Mark Barry ( is an artist working in Baltimore.


Marden @ MoMA

Brice Marden@MoMA

Today the Museum of Modern Art opens Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings, a gathering of more than fifty paintings and drawings, organized chronologically, spanning the artist's career. I’ve been looking forward to this exhibit since first hearing of it in the spring; it was well worth the wait, too.

The Dylan Painting

The show starts with a selection from his early minimalist/monochromatic paintings of the mid-60s. The paint, a mixture of oil paint and bees wax, is applied to the canvas in a thick smooth layer reminiscent of smooth spackle. The blues, greens, grays, and plum in these early works seem drab at first, but they soon reveal more depth. At the bottom of each painting a small strip reveals the layers of paint, trial and error it took to achieve this simplicity. Even the sides of the paintings retain the grime and smudges of battle. This is minimalism with a human touch.

From the beginning Marden seems to have had commercial success: these works are in the collections of Robert Rauschenberg, James Mitchner, and several prominent collections and museums.

Thira, 1980

Other Articles:

Ted Loos, A Subtle Sense of Place (New York Times, October 29)

Roberta Smith, The Man Who Persevered When Painting Was Stalled (New York Times, October 27)

Linda Yablonsky, Brice Marden's World of Living Color Crowds MoMA's Tight Walls (Bloomberg News, October 27)
In the 70s Marden's color became cleaner and brighter: think Frank Stella. My favorite here is the beautiful geometric combination, Thira (shown above).

In the mid-1980s the artist shifts to calligraphic gestural painting. Jackson Pollack is often mentioned as an influence, and that’s probably true; however, these are more graceful, more late de Kooning, more Chinese brush and ink work; gorgeous washy brush strokes. He attached his brush to a long stick, as Matisse once did, to have distance from the canvas.

Some of the first works in this gallery are painted on marble. This may seem odd, but the marbled effect will influence the painted canvas surfaces going forward, providing a solid grounding for the rhythmic brush work and an ever-present vein of light blue running through each painting.

Bear Print 1997-98-2000Cold Mountain, 1989-91

The next gallery starts with four large flowing, liquid ink and gouache drawings, which lead to what are for me Mr. Marden’s best paintings in the show: the Cold Mountain series and a Marden masterpiece, The Muses (shown below). Here there is a oneness of line and surface, a cohesive blend not seen prior to them.

The Muses, 91-93

What I like most about The Muses is that as he achieves his Zen zinger, the working and reworking, the scratching and scraping and smudging are still evident and such a vital element to its success. It’s a testament to life.

The last gallery with his most recent work is a big jump in color, as in Propitious Garden of Plane, second and third versions (no. 3 shown below): they’re more serious, at times fluorescent, a street graffiti influence and a long way from Cold Mountain. Instead of Matisse I found myself thinking of Goya, a response to the moment in which they were painted. They also remind me of a highway road map, where the driver is constantly rerouting, challenging the status quo.

Propitious Garden 3

Be sure to double back for another taste of Zen to cleanse the pallet. The exhibit remains up through January 15th.


Brubeck Nocturnes

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D. Brubeck, Nocturnes, John Salmon
It’s very refreshing to hear music that is not longer than it needs to be. While that pleasure of succinctness may not suffice to get listeners to discover a love for Webern – master of musical economy – it certainly does in the case of Dave Brubeck’s Nocturnes. Solo piano works that last anywhere from one minute to five, they are musical postcards from the composer, which is how Brubeck himself describes them in his liner notes.

With postcards you have to confine yourself to a few descriptive sentences to convey a mood – helped by a picture on the front. Then you scrawl in the corner: See you soon. Best Wishes. Love. That’s what Blue Lake Taho, Strange Meadowlark, and Koto Song do. Simple, to the point, successful like any good postcard: You get a glimpse of the place and the mood.

John Salmon’s caring performances don’t try to pretend complexity where there is none. Instead he contents himself to let simplicity and the varying rhythms speak for themselves. It all makes for very gratifying listening. But is it Jazz or is it “Classical”? If you listen, the question seems pointless. But for categorization’s sake: it’s “Classical”. Even if Bluette, Quiet as the Moon, and A Girl named Oli have their Jazz patronage written all over them, mild wafts of Chopin and even Debussy send it further to the “Classical” category than, say, Nikolai Kapustin’s works. (The latter’s fiendishly complex works, much less concerned with lyricism and representing the very other extreme of Jazz-influenced classical piano music, are worth exploring, by the way.)

Unlike so many other musicians from non-classical genres (Roger Waters, Paul McCartney – to mention only the worst offenders), Brubeck seems to have an innate musical standard that he cannot disown, no matter the style of music he delves into. I don’t suppose there is anyone who has not heard Brubeck’s music at some point… Jazz or otherwise. Time Out is as much a classic as Kind of Blue, the Köln Concert, and Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations. If you like Brubeck there – and if you are not afraid of skilled simplicity - the Nocturnes will appeal.

Naxos 8.559309

Gergiev's Shostakovich at the Kennedy Center

Valery GergievTo hear Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in concert is either the main draw to attend (perhaps for more than half the audience) or the bane to be endured for much of the rest (critics included) who are there to await – in the case of the Kirov’s Wednesday concert – a Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony.

Alexander Toradze’s performance under Valery Gergiev’s baton was the third Tchaikovsky First reviewed on Ionarts this season alone and I am confident that I missed a couple additional performances in the region. If Toradze’s wasn’t the best performance, it was certainly the most personal. Experience and confidence go a long way in avoiding the show-off pitfalls that this concerto seems to lure less seasoned performers into. The opening chords, a little softer than the usual deafening banging, left room for Toradze to swell to a ff later. Pointed ritardandos and moments of genuine subtlety made the first movement rich enough to have your ears avoid the danger of turning on their own autopilot. Eschewing note perfection also kept the senses pleasantly alert.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Gergiev and His Fresh Young Kirov (Washington Post, October 27)
Gergiev’s second greatest ability as a conductor (his first is marketing) must be his keen sense for motivating an orchestra; often with electrifying results. But this talent might work more effectively on ‘guest orchestras’ that rarely play under him and to whom his fierce and fiery style are a welcome break from the routine of the kind, the gentle, the ‘teamworkers’, and the merely skilled. With his own orchestra, the Kirov, this may not be enough for every work or every concert. His Parsifal last year was a dreary affair, his Turandot had great touches amid capable blandness. (His Verdi Requiem was sublime, though.)

God knows how many times the Kirov Orchestra musicians must play “Tchaik-1” – but even the most patient Russian soul will eventually overdose on it, no? Wednesday night seemed a case of this. The orchestra came across as playing with unenthused routine but still with a hint of the typical Russian orchestral sound which can turn out edge-of-the-seat quality in impassioned performances but only sloppy in anything else.

The second movement rolled out to unusual, unnecessary length; again trading the expected for the peculiar, but now no longer in a way that could be called refreshing. The result depended much on the listener’s own preferences. But it is perhaps the reason behind the concert’s success that the third movement can rouse any audience into standing ovations, no matter the performance.

The Shostakovich 11th – last heard at the Kennedy Center in an excellent concert with the NSO under Slatkin – is one of the DSCH symphonies (with the 5th and the 7th) that can wrestle itself into the listeners appreciation by its brute force alone… that is to say: is more easily appreciated by Shostakovich neophytes than the gloomy 8th or the quirky 6th or the later vocal or choral symphonies.

available at Amazon
DSCH, Sy. #4,
Jansons / BRSO

Review on Ionarts

available at Amazon
DSCH, Sy. #4,
Gergiev / Kirov

Review on Ionarts
The lulling, underplayed threat that sounds through the beginning of the first movement sets the stage for the Shostakovich-trick that puts him in closer relation to Bruckner than the composer he is more often (and more aptly, in every other regard) compared to: Mahler. The ‘trick’ is the building of climaxes by piling up more and more pressure, musical block by musical block. In the 11th and 4th (also the most Mahler-like of his works), this is particularly obvious, even if there are occasional oases of calm in between the ratcheting-up of tension.

Gergiev, who is also brilliant at making an orchestra blaze and spit with fire, is a master of this buildup. Take for example his recording of the DSCH 4th: it takes him about half an hour to awaken the stone giant inside the work to life… and then he is unstoppable. Almost too much of a good thing. Under Gergiev, who conducted with what seemed to be a toothpick and his nose in the score, the drums can call the lower strings into action – and they respond with a deliciously frightening, mechanic vigor. They then call the upper strings into action and before long, section by section, the entire orchestra responds. Here are cells of music lined up next to each other, each feeding on another – but without pretense of any long lines and with pregnant pauses inserted. Perhaps this is why Gergiev’s Shostakovich is short on lyricism (something Jansons does well) but rhythmically driving like few others. Perhaps this is why his Shostakovich dare calls Bruckner – of all composers – to mind. It was certainly why the performance at the Kennedy Center was so impressive all the way to the almost abrupt finale sneaking up on the listener.

The Kirov Orchestra was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

Five For Bruckner

Few things are more gratifying than a little chamber music on a Sunday afternoon. And for all of us who can’t put a little musical soiree on ourselves, the Kennedy Center Chamber Players’ concert series is a great way to spend such an hour or two. The audience in the nearly sold out Terrace Theater must have thought so, too – especially after being treated to Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D Major (K.285), Ravel’s Suite for Violin and Cello and, especially appreciated, Bruckner’s rarely heard String Quintet in F Major.

Kennedy Center Chamber PlayersThe 1777 Flute Quartet of Mozart’s (Toshiko Kohno, flute – Nurit Bar-Josef, violin – Daniel Foster, viola – David Hardy, cello) was dashed off with all the requisite charm, flair, and skill: a short and sweet aperitif before the Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello. Listening to that duo reminds that Ravel was a far more modern composer than we are all-too often inclined to think of him as. In the then 47 year old composer’s 1922 sonata, the ear can pick up hints of Bartók (or more likely: Kodaly) and the second Viennese School. Even the pizzicato-saturated second movement, where parallels to his string quartet come to mind, is far more abrasive than the jocular mood of the latter work. The lyricism of the third movement is the most obvious pointer to the work’s origins of being a memorial to the deceased Claude Debussy – but quickly tumbles into inspired, hectic dissonance before reemerging with serenity. Ms. Bar-Josef’s and Mr. Hardy’s skilled performance should have found a few new fans for this, perhaps somewhat ‘difficult’, work. The lively and puckish last movement (Vif, avec entrain) may have had its part to that end, too.

available at Amazon
A.Bruckner, Quintet, Quartet,
Leipzig String Quartet

Bruckner’s only notable piece of chamber music – if you dismiss a very early quartet – suffers neglect mostly because he is known only as a symphonist and because those symphonies offer precious little that might hint at music suitable for chamber music. That the Quintet lasts some 45 minutes probably does not help, either.

Hearing it again, and live for the first time, made me appreciate it anew. Of course I cannot deny a positive bias towards all things Bruckner, but the surprising lightness amid the chromatic music of the first movement was immediately captivating. In a slightly dismissive mood I once thought it fitting (or witty) to describe it as “clunky”. The phrase did not survive editing, which is good. Because the Quintet may be many things (grave, unorthodox, earthy, dense), but it is most certainly not clunky. While there are many distinctly Brucknerian elements (the traveling bass plucked on the cello here and there for example), it is infused with a serene charm perfectly befitting a chamber work. Why various critics and commentators have, especially in the third movement Adagio, pointed to the late Beethoven quartets becomes very obvious.

The Scherzo, which Bruckner had planned to replace with an Intermezzo composed for the purpose, has moments that are shockingly tip-toed; an image as hard to reconcile as any with our idea of Bruckner. What really distinguishes this music from the symphonies, however, is the sense of development that the latter have, but the Quintet does not. The musical ‘blocks’ that Bruckner welds together in his protracted symphonies end up making for a compelling progression of the music while there is much less sense of why the music progresses in the chamber piece. The dramatic arc is rather flat and while it would be an exaggeration to say that you might as well start listening at any given point of the Quintet, a Finnegan’s Wake-like association came to my mind, all the same.

Come the Adagio, though, which alone was worth attending the concert, and any remaining doubt is forgotten. There is no point in paraphrasing the writings of others about it: suffice it to say that as the heart of the Quintet, the five players (Jane Bower Stewart, violin, and Abigail Evans, viola, supported Bar-Josef, Foster, and Hardy) took to it with dedication and conviction that suggested a much greater care for, and connection with it than could have been possible had they only considered the Bruckner as a novelty program filler for which the only the notes would have to be gotten right and the work over and done with. The chromatic twists of the Finale: Lebhaft bewegt – Langsamer offered surprising contrast to the preceding Andante. The precision in intonation and cohesion necessary to make these passages easily understood was largely achieved by the players.

The next performance of the Kennedy Center Chamber Players will take place on December 17th, at 2PM. The Program consists of the Beethoven Trio No. 4 in B-flat major for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano, Op. 11 ("Gassenhauer"), Crumb's "A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979", and the Brahms Clarinet Quintet.


Brahms and More on DVD

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Beethoven / Brahms, Piano Concerto / Symphony no.2,
W.Backhaus / K.Böhm / WPh
EuroArts DVD

The first DVD issue in this batch of three – all related via performances of Brahms symphonies – is the EuroArts issue (from the Unitel archives) of Karl Böhm conducting the Fourth Beethoven Piano Concerto and the Second Brahms Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic and Wilhelm Backhaus as the soloist. Böhm’s Brahms is warm, natural, musical, tempered, yet rich. It’s every bit as lovely a performance as can be expected from him and the Viennese and apart from an off-moment in the brass it is much like his performance with the same band on the Deutsche Grammophon recordings. However, I am not sure how much the visual element adds. Böhm’s understated conducting does not have the flair that might make watching him any more interesting than hearing the results. It serves, if nothing else, as a reminder that clownery is not necessary to achieve great music - or that great music ideally speaks for itself.

available at Amazon
Brahms Symphonies, Böhm

available at Amazon
Beethoven Sonatas, Backhaus

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Beethoven Concertos, Backhaus (oop)

The draw of this DVD is, at any rate, the Backhaus performance of the Beethoven concerto, recorded and filmed at the Rosenhügel studios in Vienna. Backhaus was 83 at the time of filming (April 1967) – but his playing does not betray his age… only his musical wisdom. He plays the concerto with immense clarity and a hugely confident, precise touch. There seems to be purpose behind every note; purpose at the service of the music, not his own ego. No unnecessary tone or emotion comes from this man with the impassive face; there is no smudging to improve individual instances that might, as in so many other performances, leave the impression of the whole in a hazy mess. By way of imperfect analogy: Looking closely at Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus it might be tempting to touch up and smoothen the almost crude brush strokes, one at a time. After completing this work, square inch by square inch, the ‘helpful’ restaurateur would likely be shocked when he steps back and sees the grand effect of the original in ruins. Like less-than-refined brush strokes in great painting, an almost barren tone with Backhaus emerges as an essential part of the unadulterated whole.

The liner notes very fittingly describe Backhaus’ look as “nobility but not ‘power’, seriousness without pompousness, devotion with no show of ‘piety’”. I would add – or summarize: A look of humble gravitas. There are two particularly touching, extraordinary moments: After the orchestral tutti of the first movement he gently ‘pre-touches’ the keys he is about to play… a coy reconnection with the concerto before he enters again. Later he is shown with the above described face, playing with his head slightly cocked, calm and at peace… as if searching for the music inside himself. The camera work is excellent. Every member of the crew seemed to know the score by heart – Backhaus’ hands, the focus of most of the shots – are never out of the frame.

It dazzles the mind; it is almost surreal to watch a color DVD of a pianist in performance who pushed his first piano keys long before Brahms, daisies. Call me a romantic… but this kind of visual, visceral connection of the presence (in this case: occasions we remember or remember being told about) with a past we otherwise think of as far, far removed has a profoundly moving effect on me.

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Brahms, Symphonies nos. 1 & 3,
L.Bernstein / IPO
Unitel/EuroArts DVD

Dazzle of a completely different kind is provided by Leonard Bernstein in the First and Third Brahms Symphonies with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. From the timpani supported entry of the First Symphony onward, this is Brahms with “BERNSTEIN!” written all over it: brash and bold, grandiose and grandiloquent. Here is flair in abundance and the contrast between the gentle and the ebullient passages is much amplified. The beefy Israel Philharmonic sound suits Bernstein’s sweat-drenched approach which, although not nearly as drawn out as his later DG recordings, is still on the broad side. The quality of playing is fine but not too impressive in the Third Symphony. These performances are concerts taped by Unitel in Jerusalem between August 1st and 3rd 1973. They have just been issued by EuroArts.

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Schubert / Brahms, Symphonies nos. 5 & 1, Wand / NDRSO
There could not be greater contrast between Bernstein’s Brahms and that of Günter Wand. The eminence grise of German conducting lead the NDR Sinfonieorchester at the 1997 Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival in performances of Brahms’ First and Schubert’s Fifth. Already an old man then and just four (very active) years away from his death in February of 2002, four weeks after his 90th birthday, he comes up with readings that show nothing of indulgence.

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Schubert 5 / Bruckner 4, Wand

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Brahms Symphonies 1-4, Wand

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Schubert 9, Wand
The timings of the movements (taking repeats into consideration) may not be as far apart as one would expect upon hearing the two performances, but in 'perceived time', worlds separate an almost lean Wand from Bernstein. Wand did not slow down much with age, and only in some works (Bruckner’s Fourth, for example, became much broader in his late recordings; Bruckner’s Fifth never did, Bruckner’s Eight had always been broad), and even where he did, his ‘disappearing-in-the-music act’ never failed him. This “innate musicality”, a quality I find he has in common with Rafael Kubelik and Ferenc Fricsay, allows him to let the music speak without imposing an ‘interpretation’. What might sound like a recipe for bland performances in mediocre hands is pure joy with Wand. His Schubert Fifth, for example, is the lightest of joys imaginable… a performance that is rivaled only by his own, even later, account with the same band on RCA (it’s the subject my very first CD review for Ionarts) and Beecham.

If there is a problem with this DVD, it’s perhaps that ‘disappearing act’. Like with Böhm, there is not much that watching Wand conduct can add to the experience of listening to him. Indeed, I find myself distracted and less enthralled seeing Wand than listening to him. (This may also depend on whether you have to listen to DVDs through your TV’s inferior speakers or whether you run the sound through your stereo or high-quality surround system.) Just like with his Schubert Ninth (EuroArts/NDR vs. RCA/BPh), I’d rather turn to his CD performances of either of these works. (His second NDRSO cycle of Brahms is unsurpassed to these ears, ditto above mentioned Schubert Fifth.)