La Scena Musicale

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pianist Anton Kuerti's Beethoven Mesmerizes UT Austin Audience

Anton Kuerti arrived in Canada in 1965, and Toronto has been his home base ever since. In that span of 45 years, this extraordinary artist has demonstrated time and again that he has no peer in the performance of the piano music of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.

In Canada, Kuerti is a national treasure; in the United States, he has had an illustrious career, stemming from his student days in Cleveland and Philadelphia, to his now regular concertizing in America's major cities. Those fortunate enough to be in McCullough Hall at the University of Texas (Austin) last week, had the rare pleasure of hearing Kuerti in an all-Beethoven recital presented by Texas Performing Arts.

Masterful: Insight, Technique and Temperament

Kuerti’s Austin engagement included an inspiring master class with students from UT's Butler School of Music. In works by Mozart, Clementi and Brahms, he encouraged those who performed for him to dig deeper, especially in matters of research and phrasing. He suggested various ways in which the meaning of the music can be realized through careful attention to accents and the placement of chords. On the question of how to play trills and other ornaments in early music, he made it clear that while extensive study of all the appropriate sources is absolutely essential, in the end the artist must use his intuition to solve these kinds of challenges.

His reputation having obviously preceded him, McCullough Hall was packed for Kuerti’s recital. He opened with the Sonata No. 26 in E flat major Op. 81a Les Adieux. The program notes - penned by Kuerti himself - suggested that we should not press the extra-musical allusions in this piece too hard: “…what really matters are not the events, but the universal emotions associated with them.”

Briefly, the sonata deals with the departure of Beethoven’s friend and benefactor (the Archduke Rudolph), on a long trip. The first movement depicts the farewell; the second the loneliness Beethoven felt during his friend's absence; and the last, the Archduke's joyous return.

From the opening bars, Kuerti captured the tenderness of the piece, as well as Beethoven’s obvious sincerity. Too often, in performances of Les Adieux, the slow music is too loud and lacking in repose and the fast music is trivialized. Not so on this occasion. In Kuerti’s hands, each note was imbued with feeling and nobility.

Incomparable Appassionata Brings Audience to its Feet!

For many listeners, the Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57 Appassionata, is the greatest of all Beethoven’s works for piano. It has beauty, excitement and grandeur, and most of all, perhaps, the power that we associate with the mature Beethoven. It was all there, in Kuerti’s performance.

There is nothing quite like the opening bars of the Appassionata. The music starts pianissimo and continues at this volume for almost fourteen bars. Like most pianists, Kuerti ignored the allegro assai tempo marking in order to accentuate the mystery of this remarkable introduction. Then come the true Beethovenian outbursts, first in forte and then in a shattering fortissimo. Before long we arrive at the noble theme in A flat major, which is really a transformation of the mysterious passage in F minor which had opened the movement. Kuerti fully realized the intensity of the piece without sacrificing its architecture. A great performance!

Kuerti received a standing ovation for his performance of the Appassionata, but after several returns to the stage he cut off the applause with a wave of his hand. He suggested to audience members that before they left for intermission, they might like some helpful comments about the Diabelli Variations, the next work on the programme. Having said this, he launched into a brilliant twenty-minute analysis of this long and difficult work, illustrating - among other things - which elements of Diabelli’s waltz tune were used in which variation.Taking their seats after intermission, the capacity audience was primed and ready for the Diabelli.

Exposing Diabelli Variations as Indisputable Masterpiece

Kuerti’s tempo for the waltz theme was very moderate indeed. Compare, for example, another celebrated interpreter of this great work, Alfred Brendel. Brendel comes out of the gate at about double Kuerti’s tempo. Beethoven’s marking was simply vivace with no metronome marking, and that is vague enough to allow for almost any tempo. In my opinion, Kuerti’s approach makes more sense than Brendel's, both as an interpretation of the waltz tune and as a lead-in to the 'Variation 1' 'march,' which follows.

In any case, Kuerti brought out of the distinct character of each of the thirty-three variations without rushing, and without getting bogged down in over-interpretation. I was particularly struck by what he did with 'Variation 20,' with its long notes in the manner of a chorale played by trombones. There are very few dynamic markings in this variation and it can easily sound ponderous and boring. Kuerti’s piano was so well-regulated – by Kuerti himself - that we could hear and be moved by the strange harmonies of this music, as if for the first time. Who but Beethoven could have found foreshadowings of Wagner’s Parsifal and Mussorgsky’s Catacombs in Diabelli’s little waltz?

As impossible as it may seem, Kuerti’s playing appears to get even better with the passing of time. Of course, one expects serious artists to deepen their interpretations as they get older, but in Kuerti’s case technique continues on the upswing as well. The Diabelli Variations is a formidable technical challenge for any pianist particularly in the fugue of 'Variation 32.' Kuerti played it up to speed (allegro) and with the most incredible clarity.

Some listeners have found the concluding minuet of the piece to be anti-climactic after the fugue, but again Kuerti found just the right tempo and held down the dynamics exactly as Beethoven had indicated. The result was surely what the composer intended - a reminiscence of the waltz theme incorporating elements of almost everything that had happened in the previous variations, a sort of affectionate farewell to the theme after so many adventures.

As if that Weren't Enough!

After such a formidable and thoughtful performance, an encore was neither expected nor offered; instead, there was a relaxing, forthright ‘Talkback’ session for those who chose to stay. Anton Nel, the chairman of the piano department at the Butler School of Music acted as moderator for audience questions and jumped in with a few of his own.

Anton Kuerti is known to be a plain-spoken man, to say the least, and he was not shy about expressing his opinions. With reference to his teachers, he was effusive in his praise of Arthur Loesser (“the most widely cultured man I ever met”), but very critical of the methods of Rudolf Serkin (“I don’t think scolding has a big role in education."). He spoke at length about teaching children to love music. He thinks there is too much emphasis put on mechanics. He referred to his own childhood and the moment that changed everything for him: “I remember the day I discovered that I could shape the music.” In other words, the teacher’s goal should be to encourage children to express themselves through music, not simply hound them into learning pieces by rote.

"And what is the most important thing to be learned from Beethoven?" “Beethoven," said Kuerti, "shows that by persevering you can achieve great things. If we look at his manuscripts, we see that he often crossed things out and he often revised what he had done before. Composing, for Beethoven, was torture. But as with so many things in life, hard work and commitment pay off. Don’t give up.”

For those wanting more…

Anton Kuerti has recorded all 32 Beethoven Sonatas, the Diabelli Variations and the Piano Concertos. You can find them here. Kuerti’s study of Beethoven is a life-long process. Recently, he spent some time with a piano concerto Beethoven wrote when he was thirteen years old. Kuerti calls it Piano Concerto No. 0. Unfortunately, only the piano part survives. Kuerti, a composer as well as a pianist and a scholar, wrote an orchestration for the piece and played it for the first time at a recent concert in Vancouver; he hopes to release that performance on a CD in the near future.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Berlin Phil Winds Blow Beautifully in Texas!

Last week the Berlin Philharmonic, under guest conductor Ton Koopman, was presenting its regular subscription concerts on its home turf. Meantime, several thousand miles away, in the McCullough Theatre at the University of Texas in Austin, the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet (BPWQ) was also giving a concert under the auspices of Texas Performing Arts. How is that possible? Well, it helps that the Berlin Philharmonic is an orchestra of 124 players, not all of whom are required for every concert.

It should also be noted that the Berlin Philharmonic is one of the world’s great orchestras and to become a member of it may be every musician’s dream. The players are among the highest paid of any orchestra in the world and their chief conductors have included the likes of Nikisch, Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado and Rattle. Not surprisingly, the BPWQ turned out to be a superb ensemble altogether worthy of its distinguished parent. And yet – and this is proof of the depth of the talent in the Berlin Philharmonic – not one member of the BPWQ is a principal player.

The Berlin Philharmonic, like the Vienna Philharmonic, has been an exclusive men’s club for almost its entire existence. Karajan tried to break this questionable tradition in 1985 when he insisted on hiring Sabine Meyer as principal clarinet. The ensuing row poisoned one of the great conductor-orchestra partnerships in musical history. Karajan lost that battle but gradually the orchestra had to bend to the prevailing winds – pun intended - and admit some female players. The current membership of the BPWQ provides an excellent example in bassoonist Marion Reinhard. But she remains the only female wind or brass player in the orchestra. For the record, Marion Reinhard is a recent addition to the BPWQ and the only change in personnel the group has had in 21 years. Henning Trog was the original bassoonist; he recently retired to concentrate on teaching.

One further point on the subject of orchestral demographics. For much of its history, the Berlin Philharmonic was not only a 'men’s club,' but a German men’s club. That peculiarity also began to change during the Karajan years. The big breakthrough was the hiring of James Galway as principal flute in the 1970s. Again, the membership of the BPWQ provides a current example. Horn player Fergus McWilliam, a member of the orchestra since 1985, was born in Scotland and grew up in Canada.

From Middling Mozart to Riveting Reicha!

The Austin concert opened with Mozart’s Fantasy in F minor K. 608, arranged for wind quintet by the BPWQ’s flutist Michael Hasel. This rather strange, late Mozart piece was composed for a contraption called a mechanical organ - more like a music box than a pipe organ. Of necessity, then, if it is going to be played today it must be in some sort of transcription. Unfortunately, Hasel’s transcription didn’t sound especially comfortable for the players. There were also some intonation issues that made the performance somewhat unsettling.

From the first bars of Anton Reicha’s Quintet in D major Op. 91 No. 3, however, it was obvious that all was well again with the BPWQ.

Reicha was one of Beethoven’s contemporaries and while not in the same class as a composer, nonetheless contributed a great deal to the development of wind playing and wind composition. He wrote dozens of wind quintets and while the melodies are seldom memorable, Reicha was endlessly imaginative in his writing for each of the players. What’s more he had a sense of humor. It would be hard to imagine the wind solos in the Rossini operas if Reicha had not shown the way.

A Classic Bit of Barber for Composer's Centenary Year

After intermission, the BPWQ honored their audience with one of the masterpieces of American wind repertoire: Samuel Barber’s Summer Music Op. 31. This performance also reminded us that Barber would have been 100 years old this year. Summer Music was intended to be evocative of summer – from the opening bars we hear birds twittering – and it is in that abstract impressionist style that is so characteristic of Barber. There is also a touch of Delius in this largely pastoral piece. It is also a fine example of how to use woodwinds in various combinations to create a vast range of colors.

Virtuosic Nielsen Quintet Highlight of the Evening

The highlight of the concert was undoubtedly the BPWQ’s performance of Carl Nielsen’s Quintet Op. 43. This is a work of great beauty and originality and the BPWQ played it to near-perfection. There is nothing conventional about any mature work of Carl Nielsen. He loves to drop in unexpected fortissimos or rude sounds. Sometimes it is funny, but other times disturbing.

The most substantial and memorable part of the Quintet is the last movement. It begins with several dissonant chords repeated in slow motion, and there is a new color added to the texture. The oboist has switched to the darker cor anglais. Then follows a theme and a set of variations. The theme is a lovely chorale melody written by Nielsen himself, six years earlier, for a Lutheran hymn. Many of the variations take the form of elaborate cadenzas for different winds. For example, variation 5 features an aggressive and almost jazzy clarinet 'riff' accompanied only by the bassoon acting as a sort of straight man (or woman!). In variation 7, the bassoon gets its turn and then the horn, in variation 9. To end the movement and the piece, Nielsen gives us a reprise of the chorale theme. Another Nielsen peculiarity: for its first statement the theme was in 3/4 but now it's in 4/4!

It would be difficult to single out any of the players in a piece which demands so much from each of them; they were all wonderful. But let me give a special tip of the hat to horn player Fergus McWilliam for the sheer range and subtlety of his playing.

Thanks also to Mr. McWilliam for later explaining to us what Marion Reinhard was doing with her bassoon at the end of the Nielsen. To wit: toward the very end of the reprise of the theme, Ms. Reinhard grabbed what looked like a piece of curved plastic and shoved it into the bell of her instrument. According to Mr. McWilliam, it was actually a piece of a child’s plastic baseball bat. And the reason for doing this? The plastic tube extended the range of the bassoon by making its air column longer.

There is an important low A at the very end of the Nielsen which is simply not playable on most instruments, even though many composers from Wagner on have insisted on using this note. One solution, sometimes used, is to replace the top part of the bassoon - called the bell joint – with a longer one, just to get this note. Ms. Reinhard opted for an alternative, equally effective and ultimately 'entertaining' solution.

Winding Down with Americana

After such a fine performance of the Nielsen, the audience demanded more, and the BPWQ was only too happy to oblige. For their first encore they again dipped into their Americana repertoire. This time it was a two minute American Folk Suite by Kazimierz Machala. Bits of Camptown Races, Yankee Doodle and the like played with great verve. The second encore was a lovely Gershwin-like Blues by American composer/conductor Gunther Schuller.

One day it would be great to see the entire Berlin Philharmonic in Austin; in the meantime we can be glad we heard the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet.

For those Wanting More…

The BPWQ has made over fifteen CDs for the BIS label over the past seventeen years and they are excellent. You can find the Barber, Machala and Schuller on BIS-CD-952 and the Nielsen on BIS-CD-1332. There is another recording of the Nielsen Quintet by different wind players of the Berlin Philharmonic, past and present, on EMI Classics 3-94421-2. This CD also contains performances of Nielsen’s Flute Concerto and Clarinet Concerto featuring Emmanuel Pahud and Sabine Meyer respectively, with Simon Rattle conducting.

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