My latest review for All About Jazz is of Hall Moran’s timely Here Today. Click the cover below to read more about the highlight of my listening year.
(Photo credit: Felix Broede)
March 25, 2017
Cornell University, Barnes Hall
Since the mid-1990s, the Jerusalem Quartet has been slinging its unmistakable tone and adroit programming to audiences worldwide, and at last to Cornell University’s Barnes Hall on March 25, 2017. What distinguishes Jerusalem Quartet from its umpteen contemporaries is its interlocking tonal spread, meticulous attention to rhythm and balance of repertoires. For this performance, these spirited musicians presented a trifecta of drama, whimsy and lyricism.
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in F minor set the stage not only musically, but also technically, as idiosyncrasies came immediately to the forefront. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky brought a clarion register that meshed superbly with second violinist Sergei Bresler’s warmer colors, while violist Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov completed the picture with an organic rusticity and dance-like undercurrent. From the opening movement’s latticed spaces to the folkish fourth, the playing navigated every change of pace with the adaptability of a racecar driver. The Bach-inspired fugue of the second movement, with its gyroscopic core, was especially moving, and snuggled nicely against the conversational third. Though a pleasant piece with which to begin, one that showed its composer’s penchant for cellular invention and negotiations of ferocity and finesse, it was but an appetizer to the main course of Sergey Prokofiev’s Quartet No. 1 in B minor. This compact yet multifaceted gem spanned only three movements, upending convention by ending with the slowest. That final Andante was as songlike as it was ashen and overcast. Like a memory snagged on a branch, it resisted our attempts to seize it in a most beguiling way. From root to branch, it maintained integrity with solid growth and showed off the flair of cellist Zlotnikov’s way with (and without) a bow. This was preceded by an Allegro which, with abundant rhetorical flourishes, felt like Prokofiev guiding us through a maze, running down certain passages and tiptoeing through others.
After intermission, we luxuriated in the depths of Antonín Dvořák’s Quartet No. 13 in G major. Among the composer’s final quartets, it reaffirmed the fact that few understood the sonority of the genre more than he did. Delightful yet weighed by the ante of human contemplation, every dance-like gesture in the surrounding movements only served to emphasize the anthemic beauty of the Adagio. Like a restless dream during hibernation, it changed colors and textures with almost surreal seamlessness and epitomized what violist Kam in his program notes cited as their goal of showing the string quartet as a “singular instrument.” Likewise the encore, which presented the Allegretto pizzicato from Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in the manner of master clockmakers offering a glimpse of their craft.
Uniting all of this was a sense of hearing not only composers but also performers unafraid to think out loud. Like a great jazz performance, it reminded us that even within the borders of prescribed music there is infinite room for variation and interpretation.
(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)
VIDA Guitar Quartet
February 23, 2017
Cornell University, Barnes Hall
On February 23, 2017, the VIDA Guitar Quartet made its Ithaca debut at Cornell’s Barnes Hall. Since 2007, the British ensemble has been impressing a conscientious sonic footprint on listeners. Seeing them live, however, the interlocking nature of their artistry is apparent not only in their craft, but also in their choice and assembly of programming.
There is, of course, plenty of savvy over which to marvel regarding each player’s technical wheelhouse. Mark Eden’s highs, Mark Ashford’s harmonizing and melodic leads, Amanda Cook’s unbreakable ground lines and Chris Stell’s rhythmic backbone (enhanced by tapping of the guitar body) make for a kindred fit that is rare among quartets of any constitution. By an uncompromising equanimity of individual allotments, VIDA shows its truest colors as a holistic unit.
The concert opens with selections from VIDA’s latest CD, The Leaves be Green, thereby nodding to their homeland. The three-part English Folk Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, based on melodies collected from the British Isles and originally written for marching band, feels most tactile in the version presented here. Two marches, and between them an intermezzo, morph from vivacious to tender and back again. In addition to introducing us to the quartet’s sound, the piece also lends insight into Vaughan Williams’s love for music in its most rudimentary forms (even a tune heard whistled at a pub was fair game for a composer so enamored). By contrast, Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite, a collection of six French courtly and lay dances that would be the short-lived composer’s most popular work, is just as vibrant under VIDA’s fingertips in guitarist Chris Susans’s reimagining (the only arrangement of the program not produced by one of the quartet’s members). More latticed than the macramé of the Vaughan Williams, it emotes as much vertically as horizontally, stretching more than enough canvas to support VIDA’s flourishing foregrounds.
From there, the program seems to change costumes into George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Formidably arranged over a three-year period by VIDA frontman Chris Stell, the new version highlights the brilliance of this timeworn classic’s rhythmic complexities. A piece normally rendered far too grandiose for my taste by dint of its popular orchestral arrangement (the piece was originally written for two pianos), it blossoms through VIDA’s intimate filter and begs new appreciation for its source and for the feat of making it amenable to plucked gut.
After flexing their knuckles during intermission, the musicians return for a lighter — though no less engaging — second half, starting with a highlight of the evening: Mark Eden’s nimble retelling of J. S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto. Smooth yet punctuated, flowing yet rhythmically precise, this perennial favorite reveals an inner heart too often glossed over at the touch of a bow. It also shows the quartet at its tessellated best, and underscores the unique sonority of each instrument.
This is followed by two contemporary pieces. The first is by composer Phillip Houghton, who bases his Opals on the beloved precious stone of his native Australia. Each of its movements plies a different atmospheric trade. Where “Black” is jagged and strong, “Water” evokes a pond shimmering in moonlight and “White” coheres with the precision of a jigsaw puzzle. Next is The Great British Rock Journey, written for VIDA by friend Nick Cartledge. A brilliantly composed piece that is a joy to hear, it cycles through familiar riffs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and others. In keeping with the rhapsodic theme, Queen’s instantly recognizable bohemianism provides the longest and most indulgent section, and a quotation of Coldplay’s “Clocks” is surprisingly fresh.
VIDA ends with a selection from the Hungarian Dances of Johannes Brahms, which after the excitement of its predecessors might fall flat if it wasn’t for the musicians’ deft balancing act of texture and character. On that latter note, an encore rendition of the theme from director Carol Reed’s 1949 classic, The Third Man, exits the stage amid a dash of humor by which to remember a performance otherwise steeped in enchanting rigor.
(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)
Muriel Cantoreggi viola
Geneviève Strosser viola
Jürg Dähler viola
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2010, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 6, 2015
the eye, go,
to the moist—
hurricanes, from wherever,
particle drift, the other,
know the one, we
read it in the book, it was
–Paul Celan, “Stretto”
Whether as composer, oboist, or conductor, Heinz Holliger never ceases to delight and surprise. His commitment to classical music has produced some of the most enduring documents on ECM’s New Series, including one of that imprint’s indisputable masterpieces, the Scardanelli-Zyklus. Here we have yet another turnaround, one that speaks with the open style in which Holliger has become so fluent. Featuring a host of accomplished interpreters—including the now-defunct Hilliard Ensemble—bringing to life a 21st-century cycle of works around the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut, the Machaut-Transkriptionen (2001-09) represent nearly a decade’s worth of thinking and rethinking through the past in a language of the future. Scored for an unusual combination of four voices and three violas, it weaves direct transcriptions of Machaut into Holliger’s idiosyncratic odes to the same.
This is one of those distinctively ECM projects, which, like Ricercar, unravels the avant-garde core of centuries-old music. The compact macramé, for example, that is Machaut’s hallmark is on full display in the program’s introductory Biaute qui toutes autre pere, wherein something more than ink and paper have convened to elicit vital sounds. If the feeling of this balladry is loving and sincere, even more so is Holliger’s enhancement of its rules in his own Ballade IV for three violins. More than ever before, Holliger has built his cathedral out of transparent stone, blacking out the windows, so that the sunlight might be its dominant form of expression. In this sense, Holliger is engaging with Machaut not as the target of an homage, but as the living force of an artist whose music breathes in the winds that shake his boughs. Use of untempered harmonics, transcribed note for note from the original, allows incidental commentary in this regard to seep through.
A second diptych, this time around Machaut’s Ballade XXVI: Donnez, Seigneur, transforms the gently sloping path of the original—in which countertenor David James at once renders the skin and the heart keeping it alive—into the wilder detours traced by the present recasting. And while the latter may seem more oblique in its structure, it also shares with its referent a clarity of expression. Both are neural mappings, very much alive in and beyond the confines of a single recorded performance. Even the wordless Hoquetus David of Machaut and Holliger’s responsory Triple Hoquet feel more like pieces of the same puzzle than distant cousins separated by time. Holliger gives us something of a granular synthesis of the former, an embodiment of Celan’s hurricane in the fullest sense.
A single voice retains the melody of Machaut’s Lay VII in a standalone arrangement, while guided improvisations flesh out its branches with unpredictable fruit. The Hilliards are best equipped to handle this flower without damaging a single petal. A beautiful piece that challenges not through its dissonances but through its consonances, as does its analogous In(ter)ventio a 3 und Plor- / Prol- / Or- atio for three violins, which from recitative beginnings morphs into a staggered prolation of time signatures, based on the Complainte of Machaut’s Remede de Fortune. That same piece lingers on in the final statement, in which it is combined with an “Epilogue” that unites voices and strings in quadrilateral fashion, distilled until only friction remains.
In a universe of countless musical systems, Holliger and his celestial body of work have always charted unprecedented orbits through the space-time continuum. Given the way in which he has refracted himself through Machaut, the sublimity of their intersection is clear, for both have stumbled on the fragility of human contact, tracing its origins just shy of rupture.
If you’re as much of an ECM New Series fan as I am, you will likely have encountered the bewildering yet inescapable pull of Helmut Lachenmann’s masterful opera, The Little Match Girl. I reviewed the album here, and have just come across this wonderful article by Johanna Keller, who puts the opera in a broader historical context and gives us a sense of its staging.
Márta and György Kurtág
In memoriam Haydée
Játékok – Games and Transcriptions for piano solo and four hands
Cité de la musique, Paris
22 September 2012
Márta and György Kurtág piano
Filmed September 22, 2012 at Cité de la musique, Paris
Directed by Isabelle Foulard
An LGM Télévision production in association with Cité de la musique
Producer: Sabrina Iwanski
Executive producer: Pierre-Martin Juban
In September of 2012, Hungarian composer György Kurtág and his wife Márta gave a concert at Cité de la musique in Paris to honor the memory of a dear friend, musicologist Haydée Charbagi (1979-2008). Their program, as adventurous as it was delightful, combined piano transcriptions for two and four hands, exuding such intimacy that it’s a wonder the audience didn’t just melt away from all the love in the hall. For those not present, this DVD bears witness to the Kurtágs’ unbridled passion for each other and the music that passes between them. The program’s bulk is culled from György’s own Játékok (Games), an ever-growing miscellany of dedications to the living and dead alike. It’s also a tribute to classical roots on the whole, as indicated by the composer’s transcriptions of Bach chorales—each a towering trunk among his otherwise microscopic foliage.
There’s something dark yet wondrous about the first dissonances that creep from the stage. Saying hello with a farewell, György approaches the score as if it were a poem (such philosophies were, in fact, the subject of Charbagi’s thesis). And perhaps nothing so omnipresent as poetry could express either the compactness or vigor of each brushstroke. As observer, Márta stands like an appreciative statue before joining him at the keyboard. At times, she caresses him on the shoulder after he finishes a solo, an unspoken signal to connect the dots.
Those very points of light sparkle in pieces like Flowers we are…, which in conjunction with the pantheonic Baroque selections enables a poignant contradiction: namely, that Bach’s music eminently looks forward while György looks backward, leaving us in the middle like the binding of an open book. His own responsory is as much a reflection of the one to whom it is dedicated (Joannis Pilinszky) as the composer who vaulted the form.
With most at or under a minute, these concert selections are rife with inflection. There are moments of staggering beauty, especially in the Hommages, such as the Hommage à Christian Wolff, with its tip-toed notecraft, the resonant Hommage à Stravinsky – Bells, and the Hommage à Farkas Ferenc in its multiple incarnations, each more nuanced than the last and ideally suited to the composer’s greatest interpreter, Márta.
Campanule, as with so much of what transpires, expresses the pregnancy of emptiness, and the potential for healing amid broken motifs. This would seem to be the underlying message also of playful asides such as the fierce exchange of single notes that is Beatings – Quarelling and the kindred Furious Chorale. Another elliptical piece, Study to Pilinszky’s “Hölderlin,” gives musical interpretation of a poem written for Mr. Kurtág and reinforces the concert’s overarching theme, while the dramatic (Palmstroke) and the programmatic (Stubbunny and Tumble-bunny) trip over one another in search of continuity.
Director Isabelle Soulard focuses on these passages in close-cropped framings, allowing the tender lattice of Aus der Ferne, written for the 80th birthday of Alfred Schlee, and the confectionary first movement of Bach’s E-flat major Trio Sonata (BWV 525) to shine all the brighter among this crowd of lamentations. For if anything, György’s art is about remembrance—a point driven home by the three encores, all of which reiterate pieces featured in the main program: the Hommage à Stravinsky and two of the Bach arrangements. Were it not for programs and obsessive musical minds, we might not even notice the repetition, as life consists of nothing but.
The Gurdjieff Ensemble
The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Emmanuel Hovhannisyan duduk, pku, zurna
Armen Ayvazyan kamancha
Avag Margaryan pogh, zurna
Aram Nikoghosyan oud
Davit Avagyan tar
Mesrop Khalatyan dap, dhol
Vladimir Papikyan santur, voice
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Norayr Gapoyan duduk, bass duduk
Eduard Harutyunyan tmbuk, cymbal, kshots, burvar, bell
Levon Eskenian director
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 2, 2015
Since forming the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble in 2008, musician and director Levon Eskenian has moved beyond delineations of the group’s namesake, even while staying truer than ever to the roots such an association implies. His ECM debut, Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, drew from a well that had already been dug into the label’s landscape by Keith Jarrett and Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Anja Lechner, and deepened by Lechner’s subsequent duo with François Couturier. It was only natural, then, that Eskenian should turn his attention to that spiritual progenitor of Armenian classical music: Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), a.k.a. Komitas.
Having appeared on Kim Kashkashian’s Hayren and Savina Yannatou’s Songs of Thessaloniki, among others, the music of Komitas has been something of a leitmotif in the ECM catalog, where its expressions of folk sentiment feel right at home, and nowhere so fully as on this first disc dedicated to him alone. As with Gurdjieff, Eskenian and his ensemble have gone as far back to into this music’s past as is conceivable, arranging it for the very instruments whose sounds first inspired Komitas to put pen to paper. Eskenian has, in essence, “re-composed” them as physical environments around on which listeners can walk to absorb every detail.
Eskenian, for his part, provides—in both the music and liner notes—a loving account of Komitas, whose approach to diverse interests imbued his writing with metaphysical levels of beauty. Even when composing for western instruments, he would often notate with traditional instruments in mind, and so Eskenian’s instinct is in keeping with the origin story at hand. Komitas and Gurdjieff share one degree of separation by way of the latter’s student, Thomas de Hartmann, but even more in terms of philosophy, lifestyle, and artistic engagement. I asked Eskenian whether these connections had anything to do with how he put this album together.
“Gurdjieff sent de Hartmann to Yerevan, where he immersed himself in, held concerts of, and gave lectures on the music of Komitas. Later on, de Hartmann would found the Komitas Society with the goal of collecting and printing the composer’s music. There are some pieces in which Gurdjieff and Komitas used the same folk tunes. Both of them were truth-seekers. Like Gurdjieff, Komitas would also talk about vibrations. He consulted ancient manuscripts and believed in the healing powers of music, the effects of modes and how each string of the knar [a traditional harp], for example, had on a different part of the body. He taught movements rooted in ancient ritual dances of pre-Christian temples, and often referred to himself as a teacher of dancing. In all cases, I consider the music of Komitas to be an essential key for a better understanding of the music of Gurdjieff and of the many other classical composers who have based their compositions on folk motifs.”
Eskenian’s gentle and respectful assertions of the significance of this music further explain why the album seemed to take form of its own volition. Eskenian elaborates on the genesis of the project, which began with a suggestion on the part of producer Manfred Eicher to center a follow-up to his Gurdjieff debut around Armenian folk and sacred music:
“For many years I’d thought about the Komitas dances, to have them performed on traditional Armenian and ancient instruments. I knew the pieces long before my encounter with the music of Gurdjieff and they had always served as a reference for me, but arranging the piano scores for authentic traditional Armenian instruments was in fact a bold labor which required additional research along anthropological, historical, and ethnomusicological lines in order to have a certain level of objectivity that wouldn’t ruin his work. Manfred left me free to decide the program. During the recording session he was actively involved in creating a comfortable atmosphere in which the musicians might better hear their inner sound, and with the assistance of engineer Markus Heiland recorded these instruments in their full timbrous colors. During the mixing session, Manfred paid strict attention to the sequence of pieces, and to the ‘silent’ pauses between them. The album cover was also of his choosing, a beautiful photo and one of the first of biblical Ararat Mountain ever taken at the beginning of the 20th century.”
In his own briefer liner note for the album, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian—onetime director of the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan—expands on the cultural iconicity of Komitas, whose piano pieces he goes so far as to describe as “documentary works,” preserving as they do the spirit of his Armenian heritage. The “Yot Par” (Seven dances) represent one such set of piano pieces, recalibrated here to suit the spectral qualities of Eskenian’s peerless ensemble. These dances are centered around the capital of Yerevan, the contentious city of Shushi, the village of Karin, and the Turkish provincial capital of Mush. Whether the binary star of bowed kamancha and hammered santur in “Manushaki,” the duduk and tar in “Yerangui,” or the pogh flute and tmbuk drum duet that is “Het u Araj,” each dance flows in measured contrast to surrounding tunes and highlights a different instrumental color. That same pogh flute, in tandem with oud, embodies perhaps the deepest entanglement of ancient impulse and contemporary realization in “Karno Shoror,” which is about as close to experiencing history as this music gets. Even “Masho Shoror,” another piano work newly fashioned, is rife with textures that feel much older than we can articulate by any other means. The present rendition cross-hatches the double-reed zurna with the santur’s metallic lines. At just under 12 minutes, it is an album in and of itself, gathering as it does many influences in a single hearth of understanding.
“I often think about this piece,” says Eskenian, “which was a series of mystical pagan dances accompanying pilgrimage to St. Karapet Monastery in Mush. The monastery was one of the main pilgrimage sites for Armenians and served as their temple even before Christianity. After the Armenian genocide inflicted by the Ottoman empire, when most Armenians were killed, this marvelous monastery was destroyed much like ancient monuments in the Middle East have been in recent years. It was a great loss, to be sure, but I reflect on the fact that we have these sounds and traditions encoded into the piano music, now brought back to their inspirational sources. Through this process, we are reconstructing something of what has been lost. I am grateful to be able to share this with the world: a piece of the past reaching out to us from unrecoverable times.”
Many of the program’s standalone songs are likewise rooted in nature, by which traces of what came before our current generation continue to thrive, changed but also essential. In the plough songs of the northern Lori region, such as “Lorva Gutanerg,” we almost don’t need to know that Komitas gathered such melodies himself and separated them like chaff from the wheat so that posterity might be nourished by their bread. The medieval influences are clearest in these examples, as in the fortune-telling motivations of “Mani Asem, Tsaghik Asem” (Praises to the flower) and, more so, the strains of “Hov Arek” (Dear mountains, send me a breeze), a high point in the album’s topography that accentuates the talents of santur player Vladimir Papikyan, whose virtuosity unites sentiment and form. Moving through lullabies and other pieces for children, as well as love songs, the ensemble touches on Komitas’s religious affinities in songs like “Havun” (The fowl of the air), in which two duduks express Christ’s Resurrection in metaphor. On the subject of ascendant beings, the pogh solo “Havik” (A radiant bird) evokes its eponym with purposeful flight. Breathy and full of charcoal in its palette, it recalls the sensory world of a Japanese brush painting, trees barely visible as splashes of ink in the background.
Despite any mystical characterizations one might draw around Komitas, it’s clear from this recording that the heart of his music runs on a fundamental energy. It’s the same energy that allows us to listen and to love, to seek out those things which connect us beyond concerns of the flesh. So much so, that no matter what form it takes, the music of Komitas occupies an immediately relatable realm of understanding. In this vein, listeners can look forward to an album of his complete piano music as performed by Lusine Grigoryan, who has worked diligently to reproduce every effect as indicated in the original scores. Where Eskenian has taken those cues to heart by transferring them the very instruments that inspired them, Grigoryan has accepted the challenge of expanding the piano’s vocabulary to suit the ambitious needs of these timeless melodies. The reconstruction has just begun.
(Click here to read the rest of my interview with Levon Eskenian for RootsWorld online magazine, alongside another review of the album by Erik Keilholtz.)
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
with Christian Gerhaher, baritone
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
February 26, 2016
(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)
On Friday, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra brought its crisp, pristine sound to Cornell’s Bailey Hall. They were in the company of world-renowned baritone Christian Gerhaher and clarinetist Lorenzo Coppola for an all-Mozart program. It was just the hearth by which we needed to warm ourselves on a blustery night.
The first half of the program was backboned by Mozart’s Symphony No. 36. Known as the “Linz Symphony” — so nicknamed for the Austrian town where the composer dashed off the piece in just four days — its merits are about as appealing as room-temperature soda. A conservative choice, to be sure. But FBO conductor Gottfried von der Goltz did something brilliant by shuffling a handful of Mozart’s operatic arias between its individual movements. The arias, culled from Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro, were comfortable territory for Gerhaher, who recently released his first Mozart album with the same musicians.
Gerhaher proved his reputation as perhaps the world’s greatest living baritone as he navigated every Mozartian maze with dynamic vibrancy and method acting. The otherwise tepid symphony provided an imaginary context for the songs. The opening movement was now an overture, its slightly ominous blush and fluid transitions showing off the orchestra’s winds and pristine intonations. The Freiburgers made it fresh with inflections borrowed from Vivaldi (reflective of their Baroque roots) and Beethoven.
After hearing Gerhaher plunge into the piquant “Metà di voi qua vadano,” from Don Giovanni, during the symphonic Andante it was all one could do not to expect his voice to come ringing out at any moment. The interminable teaser endings so common to Mozart stretched patience a bit when watching one of the world’s finest singers sit it out on a chair between blast-offs, but paid dividends when he handled verbal workouts such as “Ah, pietà, signori miei!” and “Tutto è disposto… Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”—from Figaro and Giovanni, respectively—with absolute fluency.
Though Gerhaher continued to command following intermission, it was the A-major Clarinet Concerto that provided one of the most memorable performances to grace the Bailey stage in recent years. Not only because the piece, with its universally recognized Adagio, provoked gasps of recognition throughout the audience, but also because soloist Coppola simply gave the finest rendering of the piece I’ve ever heard in a live setting. This was as much a matter of technique as of instrument, playing as he did the rare clarinet d’amour, a predecessor to the modern counterpart, that would have been played at the time of the concerto’s premiere. Coppola delighted us with a preamble about this “theatrical” instrument and invited us to see the concerto as a “little opera in three acts.” His seamless, animated performance made it so.
Two encores validated the enthusiastic applause, including crowd favorite “Deh, vieni alla finestra,” for which Gerhaher was accompanied by mandolin in Giovanni’s famous serenade. And in the end, this was the concert’s greatest appeal. When big name acts come to the Cornell Concert Series, it’s sometimes clear that we are a minor stopover during a larger tour. But von der Goltz and his synergistic band gave us their all, and we couldn’t have asked for more.
(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)
Sara Davis Buechner
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
February 10, 2016
Solo piano concerts have come to hold a dual, contradictory status. They are ubiquitous in classical circles, where they serve didactic and diagnostic purposes through competitions and senior recitals. They’re also something of an anachronism in the contemporary sonic landscape, where digital listening threatens its live counterpart. On 10 February 2016, pianist Sara Davis Buechner brought something essential back to the Barnes Hall stage that too often eludes the musically inclined among us: humility.
It was evident in her curatorial preambles, in which she waxed to the audience anecdotally, passionately and honestly about the history of each piece before playing it. These thumbnail sketches provided a basis for absorption, an insider’s perspective on secrets that typically remain the performer’s sole purview. All the more appropriate, then, that the connective tissue of her program should be Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), an influential editor too often neglected as a composer, and whose breakout Elegies she rendered with experienced love. While foreknowledge can sometimes hinder appreciation, in this case knowing to expect an unconventional setting of a Bach chorale prelude or a quotation of “Greensleeves” allowed Buechner to transcend these bon mots with invention. From the set’s opening C-major triad, she spun wondrous and dynamic darkness, tumbling through Italian folk motifs and tempestuous dialogues with ease and leaving a trail of color bursts in her wake. Despite a formidable dynamic range, Buechner was careful to control grandeur within reason, pushing as much back into the keys as she was pulling from them, so as to honor the occasional contemplation. Busoni’s non-tonal language was thus properly illuminated, a dissonant body casting a harmonious shadow.
As is her gracious habit, Buechner paid homage to local culture by following with the 2010 Soliloquy, written for her by Takuma Itoh D.M.A. ‘12. Deeply impressionistic, it offered welcome shelter from Busoni’s storm. Cupped in the hands of a winter’s night, it was difficult not to read it as a full and rising moon. It embodied the dusting of snow outside the venue as much as the footprints left behind by those who had traveled through it to get there.
The Six Etudes for Piano, Op. 70 of Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) refastened attention to Busoni, who championed the young Italian among other fledgling composers of his time. Each of Casella’s knuckle-busting etudes was distinct, not least for all for bearing dedication to a different pianist. Collectively, they were something of a musical turnstile, allowing controlled access to changing textures. And while it was, between its aerobic trills and racing tempi, a technical tour de force, Buechner’s attention to choreography made it shine.
Capping off these lesser knowns were the Six Grand Etudes after Paganini of 19th-century juggernaut Franz Liszt, whose flamboyant personality was evident in every stroke. Buechner opted, as any sane pianist would, for the Busoni edition of these often-revised pieces, and with that connection brought her theme full circle. Whether playing a formidable passage for left hand only or executing runs with apparent ease, Buechner kept the mood as fresh as a farmer’s market and carried an underlying energy to its logical endpoint.
She then encored with a foxtrot called “Do-Do-Do,” a delightful confection she learned by ear from a rare recording of George Gershwin piano rolls. Witnessing her consummate balancing act of both the tune’s mechanical and expressive tendencies, it would come as no surprise to learn that she is one of the world’s few active silent film piano score interpreters. Every chord painted a kind of smile that one just doesn’t see any more on the silver screen.
(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)