Live Report: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra w/Christian Gerhaher at Cornell

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
with Christian Gerhaher, baritone
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
February 26, 2016

FBO 2011 Photo: Marco Borggreve

(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.

Christian Gerhaher

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.)

Juliane Banse/András Schiff: Songs of Debussy and Mozart (ECM New Series 1772)

 

Juliane Banse
András Schiff
Songs of Debussy and Mozart

Juliane Banse soprano
András Schiff piano
Recorded January 2001, Reitstadel, Neumarket
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sometimes one can set aside the reputations of composers and simply enjoy their music. This recital of songs by Mozart and Debussy, performed by an equally unlikely pair in pianist András Schiff and soprano Juliane Banse, however, simply overflows with its creators’ indelible marks. With a hefty dose of poetry, from French symbolists to Goethe, at hand, we’re the lucky ones who get to connect the dots in a constellation of unusual proportions.

Schiff’s well-spaced articulations and Banse’s meticulous control of tone make for a most fitting vehicle for the evocative Beau soir (Beautiful evening) of Debussy that introduces the program. Clair de lune (Moonlight) very much recalls the songcraft of Poulenc and enchants with its opening line from Verlaine: “Your soul is a chosen landscape…” Such cerebral storytelling continues through Pierrot to the equivocal Apparition. Dissonances in En sourdine (Muted) and the almost Carmen-like pastiche of Fantoches (Marionettes) add bolder hues. Verlaine’s careful words reappear in C’est l’extase langoureuse (It is languorous ecstasy), in which Banse pines:

This soul which mourns
In the subdued lamentation,
It is ours, is it not?
Mine, say, and yours,
Breathing a humble anthem
In the warm evening, very softly? [1]

These songs are not without their programmatic gildings, as in the cascading pianism of Il pleure dans mon cœur (Tears fall in my heart) and the thrilling chording of Chevaux de bois (Merry-go-round). Many adjectives come to mind when trying to describe these miniatures, but the one that resounds most for me throughout this recording is: clear. Like fresh light poured upon the morning fields, they nourish like no other stimulant.

Where Debussy works in more horizontal, sinuous gestures, Mozart brings potent verticality. Though a few of his Lieder, such as Warnung (Warning), bristle with the stately charm we popularly associate with the Salzburgian wunderkind, we cannot help but be delighted by the playful strains of Der Zauberer (The sorcerer), which likens the flames of passion to the dark magic of an eager pursuer. The little fable of Das Veilchen (The violet) gives voice to the desires of its titular flower, who spots a frolicking shepherdess. The violet dreams of being plucked and pressed to her bosom, only to be trodden as she skips ignorantly past. Its last sentiments:

“If I must die, at least I die
Through her, through her,
Here, at her feet!”

The recital closes with Abendempfindung (Thoughts at eventide), in which Joachim Heinrich Campe bids his loved ones not to fall too deeply into grief upon his death, promising to be there with open hands to carry them into heaven:

Bestow a tear on me and be
Not ashamed to weep for me,
For this tear shall be the finest
Pearl within my diadem. [2]

These songs are simply fascinating, and all the more so for being programmed together. Within them are many discoveries to be had. Banse and Schiff are so exacting that one almost imagines the music as having been written for them. An altogether captivating album that is as capricious as it is austere.


[1] Translations by Winifred Radford.
[2] Translations by Lindsay Craig.

András Schiff/Peter Serkin: Music for Two Pianos (ECM New Series 1676/77)

 

 

András Schiff
Peter Serkin
Music for Two Pianos

András Schiff piano
Peter Serkin piano
Recorded November 1997 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Tom Lazarus
Produced by Philip Traugott, Peter Serkin, and Manfred Eicher

In his liner notes, Klaus Schweizer describes a unique meeting of minds when pianists András Schiff and Peter Serkin appeared on stage together for a November 1997 concert held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rather than join forces, these two “protagonists” rubbed those forces together to see what kind of electricity could be produced, so that “the audience had the pleasure of enjoying a contest of temperaments…and may have come away with the impression that such ‘contrapuntal’ music-making can be more stimulating than the harmony of two kindred souls.” The spontaneity of said performance and all its glorious vices have made their way into this subsequent studio recording, for which we are treated to the same sounds that graced the eyes and ears of all who were there for this rare event. As Schweizer so keenly sees it, this is a program of fugal magnificence, each work drawing from Bach’s highest art its own vivid line of continuity.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791):
Fugue in C Minor for Two Pianos, K. 426
Mozart’s fugue may be without commission or context, but we can safely assume it was more than an honorary exercise. As its grinding voices quickly resolve themselves into harmonious contrapuntal weaves, we feel a transformation in every resolution. Through a delightful, if slightly cloudy, game of trills and trade-offs, the musicians pull off a garden-fresh take on this engaging opener.

Max Reger (1873-1916):
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven for Two Pianos, op. 86
These variations on a Beethoven bagatelle (op. 119) are like a spindle from which is cast a veritable maypole of permutations. The opening Andante, quoted almost verbatim, brightens with every revolution. With moods ranging from rapture (Agitato) and majesty (Appassionato; Allegro pomposo) to exuberance (both Vivaces) and tearful remembrance (Sostenuto), these colorful miniatures feed like a rainbow into the glowing waterfall of the final Fugue.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924):
Fantasia contrappuntistica for Two Pianos,Busoni-Verzeichnis 256b
What began as an ambitious attempt to complete the unfinished final movement of Bach’s almighty Die Kunst der Fuge turned into Busoni’s crowning achievement. Every gesture of this massive organism is rendered with the utmost artistry and given its full breadth in the exponential possibilities of a keyboard squared. The 10-minute introductory movement alone carries the weight of the whole. A series of fugues and variations “drops” like blocks in a Jacob’s ladder toy, of which the third Fugue and the Intermezzo stand out, the former for its overwhelming heights and the latter for its solemnity.

Mozart:
Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos, K. 448/375a
Far removed yet of the same passionate spirit is Mozart’s only sonata for two pianos, which receives here as lively a performance as one could ever hope for. Two no less than thrilling Allegros bookend a scintillating Andante, combining to form one of the composer’s most widely recognized pieces and closing this cohesive double album with a thick wax seal.

Since this release, Schiff has continued a longstanding relationship with ECM. Listen and find out where it all began.

Werner Bärtschi: W.A. Mozart/G. Scelsi/A. Pärt/F. Busoni/W. Bärtschi (ECM New Series 1377)

 

W.A. Mozart/G. Scelsi/A. Pärt/F. Busoni/W. Bärtschi

Werner Bärtschi piano
Recorded July 1988 at Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this ECM debut, Swiss pianist Werner Bärtschi offers up an intriguing and carefully conceived program. Having studied with Klaus Huber and Rudolf Kelterborn, Bärtschi brings a decidedly compositional attention to his playing that lends itself well to the material at hand. He begins with Mozart’s C minor Fantasie (1785), which, as the longest piece, reads like a single human life. It is not a simple reimagining of the past but a reliving of it, for to play the piano is to articulate a biography in sound, using the body in imitation of what bore those same feelings in “real time.” After such a piece, the Four Illustrations on the Metamorphoses of Vishnu (1953) by Scelsi may seem like a startling transition. Yet humble quartet presents us with a rare programmatic gesture from the Italian, whose microscopic approach actually balances out Mozart’s broader strokes and veils the turmoil of mortality behind the surface of the spirit made flesh. Bärtshi surprises us yet again with Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. This early 1976 version is like a dream we question upon waking: Did we really hear it, or did the music rise in our minds out of an unspoken memory? And so, when we next encounter Mozart in the 1788 B minor Adagio, we hear him with fresh ears and open hearts. Rather that scoping out the Mozartean influence in the surrounding works, we see the latter funneling into the former. Bärtschi follows with a piece of his own, Frühmorgens am Daubensee (1986/88), realized during an early morning hike in the mountains surrounding the eponymous lake. In it we hear snatches of something upon the wind, distant conversations, activities, worldly movements, the beginning of an avalanche that never quite forms. This salves us nicely for the relative onslaught of Busoni’s 1921 Toccata, a masterful yet demanding unfolding of theme and counterpoint. After such a towering cascade of notes, Mozart’s B major Sonata (1783) is like a gentle return, a pair of hands lowering us slowly to the earth, leaving us to slumber in a blanket of solid ground.

Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich provides a beautifully conceived essay which, despite risking an overuse of the word “oriental” (it appears no less than five times in the liner notes), makes a viable case for Bärtschi’s musical choices as being firmly rooted in the spirit of magic and fantasy that engenders the program as a whole. Where Jungheinrich characterizes this as a piano recital of “Mozart and…,” I would go a step further and say it is equal parts “…and Mozart.” yet although Mozart bookends the recital and inhabits its fulcrum, his infrastructural presence is no more significant than the validation of the superstructure. As such, the continuity between these pieces is a narrative rather than formal concern—not a linear continuity, but one in which the potential for speech is equally present at every stage.

Mozart: Piano Concertos – Jarrett/Davies (ECM New Series 1565/66 & 1624/25)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concertos I and II

Keith Jarrett piano
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded November 1994 and January 1995 (I); May 1996 and March 1998 (II), Mozart-Saal/Liederhalle, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Taken as a whole, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) remains one of European classical music’s most indestructible pantheons. Among the many symphonies, operas, songs, and chamber pieces in his formidable oeuvre of over 600 works is a handful (at least in Mozartian terms) of twenty-seven piano concertos. Theatrical, eclectic, and epic in scope, the concertos are the epitome of instrumental music written in the eye of an operatic storm. Their dramaturgy is put on full display in these two stunning double-albums from Keith Jarrett and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies. The selections therein were approached improvisationally—that is, Davies never knew exactly what Jarrett was going to do, and vice versa. The end result is warm, spontaneous music-making that tickles the ears and invigorates the soul.

The first set, released in 1996, instituted a major breakthrough in Jarrett’s classical career. If no one had taken him seriously with his ECM recording of the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues, then certainly he was turning a few heads now. From the moment he lays his fingers upon the keys, Jarrett transports us—and himself, I imagine—to a spacious and familiar world of sound, and in the company of such a finely tuned and responsive orchestra his pianism soars to new heights.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 23 in A Major K.488 (1786)
This concerto moves in sweeping gestures, spreading its arms over grand vistas, secret gardens, and mazes from which one never wishes to escape. The Allegro is sprinkled with moments of colorful synchronicity in which the piano doubles the flutes, further underlining the symbiotic relationship between the soloist and the landscape he inhabits (this doubling is later picked up by strings for an even broader sense of cohesion). The Adagio pulls away its own skin to expose an arduous inner conflict before trusting its resolution to the pianist’s capable hands. An ever-changing ensemble pairs the piano with different combinations of winds, all “strung” together by the orchestral whole of the infectious final movement. The wind writing is superb throughout and provides some of the concerto’s most insightful moments.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 27 in B-flat Major K.595 (1791)
Mozart’s final piano concerto opens on a playful note, swinging its way confidently through the branches of a singular musical path. The piano solos glow like childhood, which is to say they are entirely without fear. The central Larghetto begins with a light solo before French horns signal the orchestra to follow, weaving a solitary song. Only then do the piano and orchestra find each other after what feels like eons of separation. The Allegro begins again with piano alone, and as the orchestra picks up the theme in a grandiose call-and-response we find ourselves bathed in a scintillating resolve. The many solo moments injected into the final passage make for a provocative finish.

Masonic Funeral Music K.477 (1785) was written for two of the composer’s Masonic brethren, though sources suggest the piece was more indicative of the Society’s ideological spirit than it was of its dedicatees’ service to it. Nevertheless, its minor shifts and mellifluous wind writing make it an elegant experience all the same.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 21 in C Major K.467 (1785) is heavier on the strings and is distinguishable by its overtly march-like rhythms. The piano seems to act in the opening movement as a complicated ornament rather than as the focus of attention. The ubiquitously famous Andante sounds fresh and crystal clear as Jarrett carries the orchestra along its pastoral journey with a precise left hand, dropping a trail of breadcrumbs into the encroaching twilight. The virtuosic final movement is nothing short of breathtaking.

The Symphony No. 40 in G Minor K.550 (1788) is one of only two Mozart symphonies in a minor key and is almost as recognizable as Beethoven’s 5th. It comes gloriously alive in this passionate performance, of which the third and fourth movements stand out for their stately precision.

The second set of Jarrett/Davies Mozart collaborations, released in 1999, shows the two interpreters exploring this fine material from an even deeper point of articulation.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 20 in D Minor K.466 (1785) is the most somber of either program. Its Allegro builds a structure of monumental darkness. Ironically, the slow movement has far more energy than its predecessor, while the third is one of the masterpieces of collection, bristling with plenty of Mozart’s character-defining trills.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 17 in G Major K.453 (1784)
This is an epic concerto with another gorgeous Andante and an inspiring Presto that abounds with the liveliness one would come to expect from the younger Mozart.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 9 in E-flat Major K.271 (“Jeunehomme”) (1777)
The ninth concerto is the earliest piece of either album, written when the composer was just 21. This picturesque concerto is considered exemplary of the classical aesthetic. The opening Allegro is deceptively simple and endlessly colorful; a lush Andantino seems to yearn for an impossible love; and the final movement dutifully carries out its joyful mission, reporting back with most resplendent success.

The piano concertos are so long that, on a 2-CD set, they only leave room for shorter fillers, like the humble Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K.546 (1788), one of his most “filmic” pieces. While the Bach influence is clear, there is a dramatic undertone that is distinctly Mozart’s own and which provides a fitting close to another thoughtful and finely executed album.

Mozart constructed his piano concertos in such a way as to encapsulate all of the space embodied by the strings in the piano’s introductions. In this way he delved microscopically into the larger orchestral organism, revealing hidden biologies with laboratorial precision. Every movement is like a pianistic symphony in and of itself, a fully fleshed musical entity whose relationship to its neighbors is more genetic than it is formal. Davies shows a profound aptitude for the music at hand, as does Jarrett, who breathes clear diction into every phrase. Jarrett also excels in the ornamentations, especially in his many exuberant trills. This is classical music at its “grooviest” and is sure to please. Despite the epic length of the concertos, many surpassing thirty minutes, this could be a demanding listen were it not for Mozart’s continual innovation and unwavering commitment to circumstance. At any rate, the combined forces of Jarrett and Davies make even the heftiest doses easy to swallow.

I find it baffling to see that what little criticism these recordings have garnered focuses solely on Jarrett’s playing, calling it mechanical and lacking in the improvisational flair one would expect from the consummate jazzman. For what it’s worth, I find his performances to be nothing less than inspired and uplifting. I should make the reader aware, however, of the recording itself, which in the first set places the piano curiously distant in relation to the orchestra, as if at the back of the hall or even in a separate room. While this positioning works more fluidly in certain movements over others, ultimately the listener’s discretion will determine whether or not it is a successful arrangement. I find that it takes some getting used to every time I put the album on, but that once I do the effect is quite haunting.