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Classical Pianist Ruth Slenczynska Releases a Thoughtfully Lyrical New Album With a Record-Breaking Backstory

Pianist Ruth Slenczynska’s new album My Life in Music – streaming at Spotify – is an attractive and individualistic mix of standard repertoire and a handful of surprises.

She opens with a thoughtfully opulent take of Rachmaninoff’s Daisies, from his Romances, Op. 18 and follows with his Prelude No.5 in G major with its dancing, glittery righthand clusters. She plays Samuel Barber’s Nocturne (Homage to John Field) with a considered, brooding simmer. She gives a deadpan steadiness but also a determined grit to a considerably different, ragtime-tinged Barber tune, Let’s Sit It Out and Wait, from his suite Fresh From West Chester.

Slenczynska opts for a balletesque grace in Chopin’s Grande Valse Brillante in Eb, op. 18, eschewing the floridness so many other pianists give it, an approach that works equally well a little later in Grieg’s Wedding Day in Trodhaugen. And in her hands, her tenderly yet playfully articulated version of Chopin’s famous Berceuse is a revelation: those echo effects are irresistible. As is her generous use of space in an unselfconsciously unhurried interpretation of Debussy’s The Girl With the Flaxen Hair.

The other Chopin pieces here have similarly distinctive insights. There’s a lowlit Etude No. 3 in E Major, and a cheery, strolling Prelude in G Major, Op. 18. The longest and most energetic work here is the Fantaisie in F Minor: Slenczynska slows much of it down practically to dirge speed and volume, an effect which is both comedic and enlightening, as she picks up a remarkable amount of detail and dramatic contrast. She closes the album with a methodically articulated version of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C# minor, BWV 849.

Now for the punchline: Slenczynska is 97 years old. It is astonishing how undiminished both her chops and her ideas are.

She made her stage debut at four, her European debut at five. Every major pianist of the 1930s including Sergei Rachmaninoff was eager to coach her. She is his last living student; she treasures the Faberge egg necklace he gave her. She would go on to record ten albums and tour the world, earning a reputation as a very colorful, entertaining performer. This new album is her first in sixty years, undoubtedly a record-breaking achievement. Let’s hope she got at least a two-album deal out of it.

May 7, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saluting a Great Orchestra From a Country Under Siege

The Vienna Philharmonic have been revered as one of the world’s finest orchestras for over a century. One of their more recent traditions has been an outdoor Summer Night Concert. They’ve released their 2021 performance, with Daniel Harding on the podium and pianist Igor Levit, streaming at Spotify. The ensemble are obviously jumping out of their shoes with the joy of being allowed to play again. At this point in history, there’s no doubt that this magnificent concert represents the people of Austria far more than the sinister apartheid state being erected with echoes of another historical development just over the German border a little more than ninety years ago.

They open with a spacious, unhurried, utterly suspenseful performance of the Overture from Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. The brass/string harmonies are lusciously lustrous; the sudden leap into a gallop as the music picks up with a start is unselfconsciously breathtaking.

The piece de resistance should be Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the balance of energy and pillowy Romanticism that Harding draws out of it is visceral. It’s on the fast side, especially in the beginning, but who can argue with the shivers of the fleeting eighth movement, or the furtive bustle of the ninth, especially in context? And Levit builds expectant triumph into the famous andante cantabile love theme. What’s annoying is that like many other recent recordings of the suite, these intervals – many of them under a minute long – are broken up into individual tracks. You have to build your own playlist to fully enjoy this without having to constantly click on the next one.

Levit gets the stage to himself for a spare, somber take of Beethoven’s Fur Elise: as he sees it, what a sad, serious girl she must have been! Next on the bill are four of Leonard Bernstein’s Dances from West Side Story. The group launch into a dynamically swinging Prologue, complete with fingersnaps, then an aptly starry, summery Somewhere, a lilting Scherzo and a positively feral Mambo.

There’s not a lot an orchestra can do with Elgar’s schmaltzy Salut D’amour, but the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite gives Harding and the ensemble a chance to bring up the lights slowly and memorably, with meticulously swirling strings and understated brass: this is a peace march, not a warlord’s pageant.

Plaintive woodwinds and a hypnotic lushness permeate Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, arguably the most vivid piece on the bill. The orchestra wind up the concert on a jaunty, bubbly note with Jupiter, from Holst’s The Planets. Who knew how fast all this optimism and good cheer would evaporate in the months after this concert. The challenge will be to get it back: it only takes one generation for a totalitarian regime to annihilate the memory of any beautiful past.

January 15, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vast, Magical, Mystical Russian Choral Works

What’s most striking about 56-man Russian choral ensemble PaTRAM‘s album More Honourable Than the Cherubim – streaming at Spotify – is the group’s vast range. The basses reach gravelly lows usually unheard of beyond the world of throat-singing, often balanced on the top end by harmonies that rise into soprano territory.

Many of the Russian Orthodox works which the group sing here are considerably more colorful than you might expect. It’s not all glacial tempos and minor keys – although those are abundant. Most of the music on the program dates from the pre-Revolution era, the early 20th century in particular.

Vocal acrobatics typically take a backseat to unwavering resonance. The longest and arguably most dynamic work is a remarkable student composition by Rachmaninoff. The ensemble follow a matter-of-fact trajectory from muted, stygian rapture, to a triumphant wavelike motion, and eventually a rustic cheer. Likewise, an expansive eighteenth-century composition by Stepan Degtiariov has a folksy charm and a surprisingly animated, proto-operatic coda.

The most recent works – a slowly drifting prayer and a warmly enveloping tableau – are by Sergiy Trubachov, born in 1919. The oldest piece here, dating from the late 1600s, is a brief, soberly minimalistic setting of the central Russian Orthodox Marian hymn. The group open the record with a considerably more bracingly harmonized version by 20th century composer Petar Dinev.

The album’s most memorable interlude is a set of four hymns by Pavel Chesnokov, which give the choir a chance to cut loose with the closest thing to reckless abandon they reach for here, through sudden crescendos and toweringly anthemic passages,

Perhaps serendipitously, the album recording session coincided with an exhibit of a well-traveled 725-year-old relic known as the Kursk Root Icon, to which miracles have been attributed. Did any miracles take place there? Maybe it’s a miracle that the group managed to finish the record before choral performance was criminalized throughout most of the world. Considering that this repertoire has survived Tsarist tyranny and soul-crushing Soviet censorship, it’s a good bet that it will survive this moment’s global totalitarianism. In the meantime, we have PaTRAM to thank for helping to keep such a rich, robust tradition alive for future generations.

January 14, 2022 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Poignant, Insightful Rachmaninoff Album by Pianist Luis Fernando Pérez

What could be more heartwarming and comforting in these tormented times than an album of piano music by Rachmaninoff, king of the High Romantics? Pianist Luis Fernando Pérez‘s latest release – streaming at Spotify – is a vividly dynamic and insightful collection which includes the complete, darkly colorful Moments Musicaux as well as a handful of the composer’s Op. 23 Preludes. Most of this isn’t the composer’s darkest material, but Pérez hardly shies away when the lights go down.

Pérez opens Moment Musical No. 1 with a rubato that approaches Satie, which he straightens out as steady upward trajectories appear. It sets the music in the context of High Romantic glitter. It’s on the fast side in places, and Pérez doesn’t indulge in any wry bouncing that’s there for the taking.

There’s a sternly torrential quality and a vivid sense of wave motion in No. 2. Pérez really lets the somber, spare No. 3 breathe, really allowing the phantasmagoria to linger. It’s a welcome interpretation, a prototypical funny valentine.

Contrastingly, Pérez sets loose the turbulence, letting the angst in No. 4 and the triumph in No. 6 fly. And then takes his time with No. 5 and its sideways allusions to a famous Paganini theme.

The immortal, funereal C# Minor Prelude is also aptly spacious in the beginning and end, and crushing in between, with a breathtaking emphasis on lefthand harmonies about two minutes in. Few pianists have played this so revealingly in recent years.

The D Major Prelude gives Pérez a chance to ratchet up the emotion and tug on the heartstrings. He has fun parsing the humor and irony in the G Minor Prelude…and also toys with the rhythm on the chorus, a dubious decision. Cruel as it may be, it’s a punchline, dammit!

The Eb Prelude has a similar rhythmic elasticity: here, the fond, contemplative approach works like a charm. Pérez closes with the Bb prelude, in a similar but more energetic vein.

December 11, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revealing Rachmaninoff From Sonya Bach

If an all-Rachmaninoff album contains the immortal G Minor Prelude, that’s all you need to hear to figure out if the rest of it’s any good. How does pianist Sonya Bach tackle that piece on her new album, streaming at Spotify? With a staccato that’s forceful but short of a merciless attack on the “verse,” and then a luxuriant, languid approach to the “chorus” before the menace starts up again. Her big payoff delivers the expected chills; her outro is as devious as it should be. In a word, she nails it, in a fearlessly individualistic interpretation. After that, it would be a shock if the rest of the record was anything less than superb.

And it is. The centerpiece, the slightly condensed 1931 version of the Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, as well as a handful of preludes and the Six Moments Musicaux, are every bit as purposeful and inspired. The opening movement of the sonata is on the brisk and murky side, but that’s fine: this is turbulent, troubled music. And yet, when an anxious calm settles in, Bach works the bell-like dynamics magically, whether sepulchral or otherworldly and resonant.

The second movement is a vast, clear night as reflected on Rachmaninoff’s favorite Swiss lake, maybe. Much of the time Bach rides the pedal, letting those distant points of light shimmer for all they’re worth. Some Rachmaninoff fans may have issues with the conclusion, which again is on the fast side: Bach goes for overall disquiet rather than indulging in the occasional winking, romping phrase, and she maintains that steely focus. Vladimir Horowitz played it completely the opposite way; if the highest of the High Romantic is what you get out of this, cue up one of his versions instead.

The two remaining preludes here, in D and E flat, come from the composer’s first set, op. 2 (he would write another series later). The former is on the muted side, but that’s how Rachmaninoff himself played it, as a straightforward love ballad. The latter is also quiet and almost shockingly unvarnished: no over-the-top theatrics here, Bach using subtle rubato to let a quiet triumph unleash itself.

The Moments Musicaux are where Bach decides to revel more in the Romantic. No. 1 in B Minor has a persistent, wounded wintriness punctuated by judicious little crescendos: that little path through the snow toward the end will quietly break your heart.

No.2 in E flat minor has a similar starriness, a distant rather than intimate conversation but also a showcase for Bach’s spun-crystal legato. She gives a strikingly jaunty strut to parts of No.3 in B minor, when it’s not morose or achingly lyrical.

As she does a lot on this record, Bach takes a panoramic view of No.4 in E minor rather than making it a showcase for dramatic flourishes, beyond a slam-dunk coda. No.5 in D flat comes across as a distant precursor of the famous love theme from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Bach closes with an a resonantly regal take of No.6 in C.

Linguistically speaking, Bach is correct in using “Rachmaninov” as a transliteration from the Russian. However, in innumerable reviews of music by the king of Russian Romanticism over the years, this blog has gone with the anglicized double F too many times to backtrack and do endless rounds of copy-and-replace.

June 29, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Obscure Treasures From the King of Dark, Wrenching, High Romantic Angst

In these perilous times, who better to spend an hour or so with than the king of High Romantic angst, Sergei Rachmaninoff? The repertoire is vast. There are so many obvious choices: one far less obvious collection is The Complete Rachmaninoff Works and Transcriptions for Piano and Violin, played with dynamic intensity by violinist Annelle Gregory and pianist Alexander Sinchuk and streaming at Spotify. Bridge Records put this out in 2017.

Although the iconic Russian composer only wrote three pieces (that we know of) for violin and piano, there are a grand total of seventeen other transcriptions of some of his most famous and haunting themes included here as well. The duo kick off the record with the first of his original three, the Romance in A minor. This waltz may be a student work, but it’s achingly gorgeous, laced with Asian tinges and occasional slashing chromatics.

His other two original arrangements, grouped together as Deux Morceaux de Salon, Op. 6, are an even more brooding Romance, with some of Gregory’s most richly resonant midrange playing, and a lickety-split Hungarian Dance with strangely bell-like piano.

Most of the other arrangements are either by the composer’s old violinist pal and occasional bandmate Fritz Kreisler, or by another violinist, Jascha Heifetz, a brilliant Rachmaninoff interpreter. Kreisler’s first is a stripped-down version of the famous, searching theme from the second movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (the godfather of all angst-ridden piano pieces). It seems a little fast.

The most irresistibly outside-the-box of the Heifetz versions is the reinvention of the immortal (and crushingly venomous) G Minor Prelude Op. 23, No. 5 with a subdued drive that could almost be cumbia, The Prelude, Op. 23, No. 9 is furtive and insectilishly creepy – this is the one for your Halloween mixtape.

Heifetz’ reinventions continue with the Romance, Op. 21, No. 7 “It’s Peaceful Here,” a fond miniature, then the Romance, Op. 21, No. 9 “Melody” with some arrestingly fluttery doublestops from Gregory. Sinchuk’s belltone phrasing in the Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 2 is sublime, while Gregory has a jaunty good time with the lilting Etude-Tableau, Op. 33, No. 7. And a final morsel, Oriental Sketch, flits by with only hints of the pentatonic scale.

Kreisler’s version of the Italian Polka, a rarity, has unexpected klezmerish flair; the Romance, Op. 38, No. 3 “Daisies” has more than a hint of a Mediterranean pastorale. And the iconic romantic theme, the 18th Variation from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini comes into clearer focus in this stripped-down treatment.

Another Romance, Rachmaninoff’s song It Was in April – reinvented as an instrumental by Konstantin Mostras – is an attractively Spanish-tinged miniature. The duo give a practically Satie-esque plaintiveness but also quasi-operatic drama to the Mikhail Press arrangement of the Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3, No. 5 “Serenade.” Press – a violinist and Rachmaninoff contemporary – also recasts the iconic Vocalise with as much cantabile quality as a voice could conjure.

The two give a nocturnal restraint to Mikhail Erdenko’s chart for the Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4. Nobody seems to know who came up with the one for the version of the “Oriental Romance” Op. 4, No. 4 but it’s one of the most anthemic and vividly imploring songs here (the title is misleading – there’s no discernible Asian reference).

February 22, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Youtube Piano Sensation Tackles Iconic Music Outlawed by a Previous Fascist Regime

lockdown, it’s also forbidden to play or invite an audience to his Piano Concerto No. 1 and his even more famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. So it makes sense to celebrate those two iconically poignant pieces this month, just to thumb our noses at the lockdowners. Pianist Anna Fedorova has an album of both, plus some preludes, with the St. Gallen Orchestra conducted by Modestas Pitrenas, streaming at Spotify.

While youtube page hits are notoriously inaccurate, there’s no question that her concert performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has generated a lot of traffic. How does her version of these two somewhat less harrowing pieces compare? After the tumbling, torrential piano introduction to the Concerto No. 1, Pitrenas puts the orchestra on a very long leash, with a heartfelt, languid fluidity throughout the first movement. A delicate balance of cascades from Fedorova against mournful horns and orchestration develops, up to a restrained crescendo that many other ensembles love to rampage through. This crew make it work just as well under lower lights, even as. Fedorova’s torrents rise to gale force at the end.

The calm and suspense of the second movement are absolutely Lynchian, Fedorova often embracing a spaciousness that borders on lurid. So the hurried first part of the concluding movement is a surprise, less a romp than a scurry. Happily, a glistening nocturnal calm descends from there, although the ending also feels like a rush job in places.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is also fast, beginning with a real strut. Paganini was legendary as a shredder and Fedorova seems determined to match that – although that sets up a noticeable contrast with the calmer passages, Pitrenas again opting for muted elegance, even in the famous love theme. Ultimately, this is classical music as entertainment. The stabbing, dancing quality of the seventh segment, and toward the end, is closer to Moussorgsky phantasmagoria – or Gogol Bordello – than, say, Chopin. This isn’t the most nuanced version of the suite ever recorded: “This album is like an express train,” Fedorova enthuses in the album liner notes. And how. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphis Orchestra put out a predictably much more lush version which those seeking greater luxuriance should check out.

Fedorova takes an energetically painterly approach to the preludes: she feels close to the composer and as a fellow expat clearly misses her home turf. She gives Op. 23 No. 1 a very understated gloom bordering on despondency. She sees Op. 32 No. 12 as a weary winter tableau, although she really rocks it out, getting unusual shimmer out of the belltone riffs, which is no small feat in what’s actually a far more haunting piece of music.

By contrast, Op. 32 No. 5: is all lilacs in springtime, a charming, spring-loaded performance. Her take of Op. 23 No. 2 has the same spirit, but with a regal, High Romantic angst. Some of these interpretations leave room for debate, but there’s no criticizing Fedorova’s passion for this music.

January 28, 2021 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

October 20, 2020 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fresh New Interpretations and Dazzling Technique from Conrad Tao at Carnegie Hall

Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, pianist Conrad Tao delivered a performance that offered a glimpse of an unselfconscious bon vivant sensibility along with daunting, world-class chops and and frequently astonishing insight into a very diverse program.

Tao played with such precision and and evenness of attack that even the night’s most staccato passages had fluidity. He leveraged the thrill factor with an old orchestral trick, beginning pieces or developing themes from a whispery pianissimo so that when things got loud, they seemed even louder. But what was most impressive is that he’d spent a lot of time under the hood with these works, figuring out exactly what makes them purr…or roar.

He opened with David Lang‘s Cage [sorry dude, titles are capitalized around here], a brisk study in single-note counterpoint and a shout-out to the famously silent American composer. Tao’s matter-of-factness and exactitude enhanced the music’s hypnotic feel: others might not have played this as a nocturne, and that’s their loss.

Others also definitely would not have played Bach’s Tocccata in F Sharp minor, BWV 910 with as much spaciousness, and dynamics, and probably with less or even none of the judicious rubato that Tao would return to again and again throughout the evening. But in so doing, he revealed the love ballad at the heart of the work, its fondly jubilant righthand melody cleverly cached amid the composer’s outwardly morphing phrases. Obviously, Bach on the piano is inevitably going to be iconoclastic: this was as rewarding to hear as it must have been fun to play, Tao gritting his teeth and raising his eyebrows as the web grew more complex.

Another work that got even more time under the microscope, as far as extracting every ambitious flicker of modernity, was Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in A minor, Op. 39, no. 2. Harmonically, it’s almost shockingly more adventurous than the rest of those relatively brief High Romantic iano pieces, most of which he wrote in the 1890s. This one dates from 1917, foreshadowing where he’d go with the Third Piano Concerto and its incessantly shapeshifting jazz-influenced rhythms and flourishes.

Tao delivered Julia Wolfe‘s Earring with acerbity and meticulous, often pointillistic rhythm. There seemed to be a man-versus-machine narrative prefiguring her John Henry suite; here, the machine grew more and more human, with a belltone poignancy. To close the first half of the evening, Tao returned to Lang for another 1990s composition, Wed, an increasingly plaintive, restless, frequently carrilonesque ballad written as a salute to a couple who got married while the bride lay dying in the hospital.

The centerpiece of the second half of the program was a breathtakingly expressive and fresh performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Counterintuitively, the high point was also the quietest section, awash in resonant, lingering phrases, the contrast even greater considering how fast Tao had scampered, if not particularly loudly, through the introduction. Lilting cantabile passages stood out amid minor-key unease and a dance that seemed not only rather Russian but almost phantasmagorical, as Tao worked the dynamics up and down, all the way through to a puckish coda.

There were a couple of misfires too. It’s one thing to program a study in spastic/resonant contrasts, but two? At least the Jason Eckart piece eventually wound down to a blackly suspenseful reflecting pool…but getting there, as the rhythm was epileptically jerked around any time the music could have coalesced, was torture. Which is not to say that ugly music can’t be meaningful or impactful, but this could have made its point in a tenth the time, never mind the Elliott Carter piece it was paired with. And the mawkishly inept freak-folk of Daniel Johnston is no less artless or awkward at Carnegie Hall than it would be on open mic night at any grungy, overpriced Bushwick beardo bar.

November 26, 2019 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Karine Poghosyan Finds the Holy Grail with Russian Romantics at Carnegie Hall

“You’re not going to believe how funny this is,” Karine Poghosyan alluded as she lit into a puckishly rhythmic passage in La Semaine Grasse, from Igor Stravinsky’s solo piano arrangement of Petrouchka at Carnegie Hall last night. She didn’t say that in as many words, relating that information with her fingers and her face instead. By comparison, practically every other pianist’s version of the piece seemed at that moment to be impossibly tame.

On the surface, Poghosyan’s modus operandi is simple. Like a good jazz singer, she approaches the music line by line, sometimes teasing out the meaning, other times illuminating it with the pianistic equivalent of fifty thousand watts. Art for art’s sake is not Poghosyan’s thing. She’s all about narratives, and emotional content, and good jokes – even in the case of the evening’s program of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff works from her latest album, where humor is so often fleeting. Matching a buttery, perfectly articulated legato to a thunderous lefthand attack, Poghosyan reaffirmed the album’s fullblown angst, and glory and triumph. She’s found her holy grail with this repertoire.

Poghosyan wears her heart on her sleeve: her features are just as entertaining to watch as her fingers. When her eyes grew wide and the muscles of her jaw grew taut, that was a sign to hang on for dear life. That held especially true in the encore, a machinegunning romp through the lightning cascades and jackhammer intensity of Khachaturian’s Toccata, not to mention the most demanding, intricately woven staccato passages of the Stravinsky. But there was just as much rapturous, closed-eyed cantabile reverie (Poghosyan played the whole program from memory) in Rachmaninoff’s six Moments Musicaux, which she delivered as a contiguous suite.

Her approach underscored how these relatively early works comprise some of the composer’s most ravishingly beautiful, shapeshifting melodies. But Poghosyan was just as attuned to momentary glee or sudden stressors as longscale thematic development. A sotto voce strut and a couple of emphatic “Take THAT!” riffs stood out amid spacious, achingly anticipatory resonance, several tributaries of ripples that would eventually coalesce to rolling rivers of notes, and eerie proto-Satie close harmonies and chromatics. Her gentle, endearing take of Lilacs, Op. 21, No. 5 made considerable contrast, a rare carefree moment in the notoriously angst-ridden Rachmaninoff catalog.

She went deep into that with his Piano Sonata No. 2, spotlighting its persistent, unsettled quality. She really let the introduction breathe, taking her time, parsing the dichotomy between struggle and guarded optimism. Similarly, when the clearing finally came into view in the first movement, the effect was viscerally breathtaking. Others tend to interpret it as sentimental. To her, it seemed like genuine relief, knowing that the turbulence would return in full force, if balanced by moments of relative calm and even dancing ebullience.

Poghosyan’s precision throughout the daunting, icepick staccato of the trio of pieces from Petrouchka was astonishing. Other pianists with the virtuosity to play the Danse Russe tend to make a Punch and Judy show out of its relentless phantasmagoria. Generously employing the pedal, Poghosyan approached it as the grandest guignol imaginable, Stravinsky’s sardonic call-and-response notwithstanding. And her take of the first three movements of the Firebird was unselfconsciously revelatory: the famous symphonic hooks seemed practically muted amid the rest of the bustling, sometimes stampeding, often starkly distinct countermelodies.

The spectacle didn’t stop with the music. After big codas, Poghosyan didn’t throw her arms up quite as dramatically as she usually does, but she had her usual striking stagewear. This time, it was shimmery black slacks and a matching top for the first half, then after the intermission she switched to an ornate red gown. And she could have started a wholesale florist business with all the bouquets after the encore: in a world where people onstage and off are too often expected to behave sedately, this fan base didn’t hold anything back.

November 5, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment