In my Bangkok apartment.
(Click on picture to enlarge).

Monday, August 30, 2010

An Evening With the Three B’s and Top Thai Music Students

Pianist Thaya Kongpakpaisarn (left) and violinist Yadaq Lee (right)

Bangkok, Thailand. August 26, 2010. Because big name soloists seldom perform in Bangkok, I attend a lot of student performances, and performances of both Thai and foreign teachers and professionals who have not made it into the international arena. Last night at the Goethe-Institut’s auditorium, in a violin and piano recital titled “The three B’s,” I again experienced how pleasant and rewarding an evening of well-played music can be.

Violinist Yada Lee and pianist Thaya Kongpakpaisarn are conservatory performance students now studying at top schools in the US, Yada at Oberlin Conservatory, and Thaya at the Eastman School. Before going abroad to study, both won local and regional competitions. In fact, two years ago, I attended the Chopin Competition in Bangkok, in which Thaya was the top prize winner.

Thaya and Yada are very talented, accomplished and musical, and they chose a program in which they exhibited just how well they can play. Yada began the evening with Bach’s Sonata No. 1 for solo violin, after which she was joined by Thaya for Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5 (“Spring”.) After the intermission, they performed Brahms’s gorgeous Violin Sonata No. 3. Suffice it to say that their fluid, beautiful music-making put me in a good mood, which totally erased the experience of the hour-long traffic jam getting to the concert late, and that the euphoric afterglow continues.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra Delivers Another Enjoyable Program

Italian duo pianists Roberto Metro and Elvira Foti sign programs following their appearance with the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra

Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. August 21, 2010. The concert hall at the College of Music, Mahidol University, has become my favorite concert venue, and its resident orchestra, the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, has become my favorite local orchestra, and it was, therefore, worth the almost two hours it takes me to travel to the Salaya campus using a combination of walking, the Skytrain and bus. This past Saturday afternoon, I was rewarded with a varied program of both new and not so familiar music.

The main work during the first half, was a concerto for piano four hands by the early classical composer Leopold Kozeluh (1747-1818). This performance was a double first for me: I have never heard of Kozeluh and I’ve never attended a public performance of a piano concerto for one piano four hands. The Italian pianists “Metro and Foti” made as much of this slight work as anyone could, and in the process, delivered a thoroughly idiomatic and enjoyable performance.

The remainder of the afternoon was a powerful performance of Paul Hindemith’s symphony “Mathis der Maler.” Although I have a recording of this dramatic music, I can’t recall ever hearing it performed live. The TPO under its permanent conductor Gudni Emilsson, produced a gorgeous and powerful sound, which left the audience spellbound.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Talented Russian-Israeli Pianist Viktor Goldberg Plays to a Full House at the Goethe Bangkok

Russian-Israeli pianist Viktor Goldberg is presented flowers by the German ambassador to Thailand (left) and the Israeli ambassador (right) following Goldberg's successful Bangkok recital.

August 09, 2010. Bangkok, Thailand. Russian-Israeli Pianist Viktor Goldberg is among the seemingly endless supply of pianists in their 20s, who play so well and so musically that an evening spent with them is guaranteed to please, even if one doesn’t entirely agree with what one hears. Goldberg’s August 9th recital at Bangkok’s Goethe Institute auditorium began on an unusual high note even before he took to the stage: the recital hall was filled to capacity. So many pianists end up playing to sparse audiences in Bangkok, that this event, which was jointly sponsored by the German and Israeli embassies and was attended by the ambassadors of both countries, stands out, and it affirms that the energy generated by a packed house, even a small house, is an essential ingredient of public performance.

Beginning his program with Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, Goldberg showed that he was well-grounded in the classical repertoire and that he had thought out what he wants to do with this frequently-played piece. Although I found his performance somewhat choppy, still there were moments of interesting interpretation, and overall, Goldberg’s performance was, if not quite beautiful, satisfying.

The highlight of the evening for me was Goldberg’s perfectly beautiful performance of Mozart’s Sonata No. 9, the technically easiest part of his program, but the musically most difficult. No composer is more capable than Mozart in exposing chinks in a pianist’s technical and musical armor. The sforzando pedal is no aid whatsoever in covering up a pianist’s deficiencies when playing Mozart’s transparent music. In this well-known Mozart Sonata, Goldberg was in total control, a slip or two in the final movement to the contrary notwithstanding, and played cleanly and elegantly to produce what I would describe as a “Mozart sound.” In the Scarlatti sonata. which began the second half of the program, Goldberg produced the same clean sound necessary for a successful performance of this baroque master, and introduced some ornamentation that I hadn’t heard before, which I liked.

As for Goldberg’s performance of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5, I have little to say because I’m only just beginning to listen to a fair amount of Scriabin, way too little so far to express any opinion of what sounds to me like an extremely difficult piece. Suffice it to say that Goldberg was quite at home negotiating the technical difficulties of this complex piece, and that I wouldn’t be surprised if Scriabin lovers gave Goldberg high marks.

The “big” work on this evening’s program was Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel. Goldberg treated each variation as a miniature, a sort of vignette, and so gave different styles and sounds to each, which made the performance extremely interesting and lovely. But, alas, it lacked the gravitas of what I conceive to be the essence of this piece, as exemplified by Serkin’s magnificent recording, and so after enjoying Goldberg’s “pictures at a….” I proceeded home and listened to Serkin before I went to bed.

Goldberg’s efforts this evening were amply rewarded by abundant and enthusiastic applause, which was returned by the playing of three encores followed by the presentation of flowers by the ambassadors of Germany and Israel, after which we all exited to be confronted by a tropical downpour during this, Thailand’s rainy season.

Friday, August 13, 2010

17th Singapore International Piano Festival 2010

17th Singapore International Piano Festival 2010
23-26 June 2010
Victoria Concert Hall

Chinese Pianist Wang Yuja Opens 17th Singapore International Piano Festival

Day 1. In this age of colossal piano talent, Wang Yuja can hold her own with any of her fellow colossii. She dazzles, excites, thrills, and ultimately overwhelms her audience with aural spectacle, and, yes, she's very musical as well. What impresses is that she has a conception of each piece she plays, where the individual pieces lie and how they can be made to fit together into a convincing whole. Although these qualities were not always present during her fine recital Wednesday night at Singapore's Victoria Concert Hall, they were best exhibited during the Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 6, a big work that can easily degenerate into fierce technical displays and lapse into frisson. To her credit, Wang Yuja was aware that she had to provide color, changes of pace, dynamics, and varieties of sound; just banging it out wouldn't do. Ultimately, her performance was not only exciting, but was also interesting and authentic.

This same approach didn't work nearly as well in Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2, but the fault here might be more mine that Wang Yuja's. I heard Maurizio Pollini play this same work in Carnegie Hall in April, and his stately reading mirrors my conception of how this great work should sound. I can't blame Wang Yuja if she sees things differently. Beginning loud and faster than I remember hearing this work played, Wang Yuja quickly established that she was going to make this big work even bigger, and she never let up. It was too intense for my taste, even though some of the softer and slower passages, taken in isolation, were played sensitively and beautifully, At only 22-years of age, this is exactly where I would expect Wang Yuja to be. Given 20 more years (a safe prediction for me inasmuch as I won't be around to be accountable), Wang Yuja will slow things down, quiet things a bit, and exhibit a more introspective resolve to uncover the beauty and meaning of this great work. For the present, it is easy to enjoy Wang Yuja's exuberance.

Two sets of short pieces, one by Scriabin, the other by Schubert/Liszt, enclosed the major Prokofiev and Chopin works. Wang Yuja has a feel for Scriabin and I would like to hear her play some of his longer works. Liszt's arrangements of three of Schubert's lieder, although flawlessly played, were a little too robust and reminded me that the piano is a percussive instrument, which is not, I think, what either Schubert or Liszt (I'm not that sure of Liszt) had in mind.

For encores, and in response to thunderous applause from an adoring audience, Wang Yuja gave a ravishingly beautiful performance of a Chopin waltz, a fluid, articulated and exciting exhibition of a Scarlatti sonata, and, just to make sure that the audience would become exhausted (I don't think that Wang Yuja ever tires) and not ask for even more, she ended the evening with a powerful and magnificent playing of the first movement of Stravinsky’s Putrushka. Well, it didn't work: the clapping continued even after Wang Yuja departed the stage and the house lights were turned on.

A Chopin Love Affair
Italian pianist Pietro de Maria

Day 2. There are romance novels, love affairs on the silver screen, and endless TV programs about romantic infatuations. But, what about the concert hall? Not likely, unless you listen to Pietro de Maria play Chopin. This tall, young and handsome Italian, dressed in immaculate tails, sits down at the Steinway and seduces Chopin with a touching love and beauty that is bound to seduce the audience as well. Judging by the reception he received at the sold out Victoria Concert Hall last night, he was 100% successful.

The danger is that overly romantic playing can easily become smaltzy a la Liberace or Lang Lang. To avoid this takes superb musicianship and structure, both of which qualities Pietro de Maria has in abundance. After a slight rough start with Chopin's Ballade No. 1, de Maria sensitively performed the remaining three to complete the first half of his program. Where required, de Maria abandoned any hint of moonlit nights, and tossed off the many fast and loud passages of the ballades with a strength that exhibited Chopin at his masculine best.

The second half of the program was devoted to one long work, Chopin's Sonata No. 3. A sonata, the quintessential classical music form, needs to have a grand idea behind its performance, and to my mind, Pietro de Maria delivered just the right amount of planning and spontaneity to move this intricate work successfully through his hands. I had the feeling that de Maria might be hearing himself play the sonata for the first time, that he had permitted the music to take control and guide him, but always within the bounds of good taste, the score, and enough restraint so that we knew we were listening to Chopin and not to de Maria.

For encores, Pietro de Maria played a Scarlatti sonata with simply gorgeous sound, Liszt's "La Campanella," a Chopin nocturne, and finally, Chopin's Scherzo No. 2. The encores alone were worth the evening. I think it is fair to say that the audience was as enthusiastic as I am.

Benjamin Grosvenor---A Good Argument for Reincarnation

Day 3. If you said that the last thing the musical world needed was another wunderkind pianist, you might be right, that is, until you heard Benjamin Grosvenor play. Now age 17 (looks closer to 12), British born Grosvenor has been impressing audiences since age 11, and Friday night's recital as the third event in this year's Singapore International Piano Festival, demonstrated why this is so, the main evidence being Grosvenor’s magnificent performance of Liszt's B minor piano sonata.

The Liszt sonata is a complex piece of music that taxes the extremes of musical maturity to bring off. Of course there are the demands of technical difficulty to master, but lots of pianists are able to play its many notes very well. With Grosvenor, this staple of the repertory resides not only in his hands, but also in his head, and therein lies the achievement of last night's performance. Profound is the adjective that suggests itself to me as best suited to describe Grosvenor’s concept and execution. Mood changes, dynamic shifts, rhythmic variations, tempo nuances, and a flawless technique, all combined to serve Grosvenor's successful search to find meaning in this, Liszt's only sonata. Grosvenor opened doors in this work that might otherwise have remained closed and in so doing, infused the music with beauty.

Grosvenor began his recital with three etudes by the contemporary Russian composer Nikolai Kapustin. Although a favorite of some young pianists, I find Kapustin cartoonish and his blend of jazz and traditional compositional forms leave me uninterested. From a purely pianistic standpoint, the etudes present performance challenges that a pianist as good as Grosvenor can use to good effect. If I have to listen to Kapustin, I would choose to do so via Grosvenor.

This year's theme of the 17th Singapore International Piano Festival is "Chopin at 200," and Grosvenor’s contribution was two nocturnes and the Scherzo No. 3. Grosvenor’s sensitive, introspective interpretations of the two nocturnes were fittingly touching, while the Scherzo, although very well played, was a little too brittle and crisp in the fast octave passages for my taste, but overall, his execution was consistent with superb Chopin performance.

Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit is so far removed from Liszt’s B minor sonata, that one wonders how any pianist can make the switch. After all, Liszt played like Ravel, or vice versa, is disaster itself, a trap that many less talented performers with only one sound to offer, fall into. Predictably, Grosvenor put on his impressionist hat, and painted musical colors, moods, bursts, and great waves and cascades, that left the listener in whatever mood his or her imagination could create for itself. No comment need be made of Grosvenor’s flawless negotiation of the impossible technical demands of the piece; I had taken them for granted long ago.

The main encore, played after much well-deserved cheering, was Cziffra's meta-technical, crass arrangement of Strauss's Tritsch-Tratsch Polka. Knowing exactly what he had to do, Grosvenor stunned and excited the audience with more notes than any ear could hear and more leaps than the eye could take in. It was a fun and entertaining ending to a deeply convincing evening of music-making. Benjamin Grosvenor is the best argument I know forreincarnation: to play this well at age 17, he must have been a great pianist in a past life.

Grosvenor signs Buzz's CD

Piotr Anderszewski Plays a Non-Chopin Program

Day 4. The most famous of the participants in this year’s 17th Singapore Piano Festival, was Piotr Anderszewski, yet I found his recital problematical, due mainly to his programming choices. On paper it looked good: Bach, Karol Szymanowski, Schumann and Beethoven, but in performance it didn’t come off quite as I expected.

I know I can’t complain about Bach, but his English Suites are not among his most ingratiating works. I have a CD of them performed, I think, by Gould, but, given the choice, I usually listen instead to the French Suites, the Partitas, or the Goldberg Variations. Anderszewski played English Suite No. 5 with sensitivity and warmth, but I was left wishing to hear some new insight, which I found lacking.

Karol Szymanowski is now regarded as Poland’s most famous composer after Chopin and, over the years, I’ve attended recitals where one or more of his short works were performed. His music is difficult to listen to and not readily accessible, but Szymanowski’s Metopes, Op. 29, selected by Anderszewski, has got to be among Szymanowski’s most dense. Indeed, Anderszewski tells in his program notes how, after much playing, he found a beautiful, but hidden, line within a Szymanowski piece. Well, I just don’t have the time or the inclination to search Szymanowski for these hidden beauties.

In the same vane of hidden (hoped-for) masterpieces, was Robert Schumann’s Six Studies in Canonic Form, Op 56. Yes, it sounded like it could have been composed by the great Schumann, but there is a reason it is seldom performed, and Anderszewski didn’t provide any reason to elevate this obscure work to a more prominent position.

By the time Anderszewski reached the last work of his recital program, I was, frankly, bored, and felt somewhat sorry for those sports fans in attendance who were missing the World Cup. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 has been recorded by Anderszewski and is played frequently by him. He’s got it down pat. It was a structured, fluent, and absorbing performance, one which demonstrates why Anderszewski is one of our leading pianists. Unfortunately, this wasn’t his night, or maybe it wasn’t mine. Take your pick,

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Emmanuel Ax Opens This Year’s Mostly Mozart Festival

Lincoln Center, New York City, July 28, 2010. One thing I like about Emmanual Ax’s performances of Chopin is that they are so accurate. “Accurate” might seem a strange adjective to apply to Chopin, the piano keyboard’s supreme romantic, until one realizes that Chopin’s two favorite composers were Bach and Mozart (this according to musicologist Alan Walker during his fascinating pre-concert lecture). While performing Chopin’s Concerto No. 2, Emmanuel Ax shunned the swooning school of Chopin performance, which today is best exemplified by superstar Bang Bang, to give us, instead, fluid, proportioned, graceful phrasings, and thoughtful interpretations. Ax must believe, as I do, that all of the beauty and passion is already built into the music by Chopin himself, and that the performer’s task is to interpret what is already there, and not to sentimentalize. There is no better Chopin interpreter around today than Ax, whose long connection with this composer keeps deepening.

Louis Langree conducted two Mozart works, the overture to La clemenza di Tito, and the “Haffner” Symphony. Both accounts showed how exciting, graceful, and beautiful Mozart can be, and how many mood changes must be negotiated in one work. Making each transition flawlessly, Langree’s robust approach demonstrated why Mozart is revered today: he’s a thoroughly modern composer, one who will never become a museum piece as long as there are musicians like Langree and these orchestra players around to prevent Mozart’s frequently-played works from sounding routine.

Also on the program was the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, whose robust voice was surprisingly well suited to the two works she so beautifully sang: a Handel aria from Giulio Cesare, and “Che faro senza Euridice” from Gluck’s Orfeo. But her encore, “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s “Serse,” was for me the highpoint of her singing. Seemingly coming from no where, she produced an ethereal tone that progressed into a ravishing splendor, which left the audience spellbound until someone broke the silence to begin thunderous applause and cheering.
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