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CrossCurrents: Lera Auerbach

Lera Auerbach:
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24 Preludes for Piano

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24 Preludes for Violin and Piano

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Tolstoy's Waltz
CrossCurrents, the Kennedy Center's festival of contemporary music, opened auspiciously on Friday night, with the first of several Composer Spotlight concerts, this one dedicated to Russian-born composer Lera Auerbach (b. 1973). We have been enthusiastic fans of Auerbach's music since hearing her sonata for cello and piano, on a 2005 concert by Wu Han and David Finckel, but had already been convinced of her talent from other works heard in recordings. Once again after this program devoted entirely to her compositions, with the composer herself at the piano, Auerbach more forcefully strikes me as that rarest of new voices, a composer who sounds most often only like herself, rather than reminiscent of the work of earlier composers.

Auerbach first partnered with cellist Alisa Weilerstein and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, both Ionarts favorites, in the 2003 song cycle Last Letter. As Auerbach explained in an engaging introduction, it is a setting of a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva, the author of a passionate correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke, although they never met. She wrote this poem upon learning of Rilke's death, some time after he had stopped answering her letters, and carries on in it her conversation with the Rilke in her mind, whom Auerbach said she cast as the cello, as if Rilke were involved in the dialogue although he is deprived of words. It opens the work in a frenzied A string cantillation focused on keening half-steps and continues often in agonized trills, spectral overtones, and disembodied sound from the bow sul ponticello. The vocal part ventured near the comfortable edge of Cooke's range, veering towards a shriek at times and then joining the cello in wordlessness in the hummed postlude. All three performers suited one another in musical style, with a tone that was robustly throaty, velvety but potent.

It was a nice bonus to get to hear Auerbach's cello sonata again, this time with the composer at the keyboard. Auerbach gives equal consideration to tonal structures and varying degrees of dissonance, treated both in ways both lyrical and pulsating, sometimes with an irregularity that seemed a little rocky or not quite aligned in the third movement. It is perhaps radical that Auerbach even thinks in terms of keys and the traditional circle of fifths, as she has down in her three sets of 24 preludes, mirroring the key structure of Chopin's famous set. This third set, for cello and piano, was completed just last year and it shows once again that the form of miniatures joined into a larger scheme suits her.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Auerbach's Passionate, Poetic Piano (Washington Post, May 4)
Some of the preludes did not seem particularly to be in the keys attributed to them (C major, G major), but others struck more traditional poses, only to be undermined with irony (the E major gigue descending into a slightly demented circus mode and the quasi-Rachmaninoff G-sharp minor song without words suffering the subsequent drunken slurring of the cello). The work teemed with historical references, to Bach sarabandes in no. 5 (obliterated by hammered dissonance in the piano), a grotesque Shostakovich waltz in no. 16, the pulsing bass of rock music in no. 17, and a minor-key Magic Flute overture in no. 14. As an encore, Auerbach arranged that G-sharp minor prelude and its tender melody to include a vocalise for Sasha Cooke.

The CrossCurrents Festival continues Monday evening with Joan Tower in the Composer Spotlight (May 4, 7:30 pm), on piano and collaborating with the Muir Quartet and Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in the Kennedy Center Family Theater. At the same time, Sasha Cooke will give a recital with pianist Pei-Yao Wang on the Embassy Series (May 4, 7:30 pm), at the Austrian Embassy, and Alisa Weilerstein will play Haydn's C major concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (May 4, 8 pm). We wish we could hear all three.

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