Tag Archives: Liszt

Brahms vs Wagner at the Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 15, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

I was looking forward to the battle of the 19th century—Liszt and Wagner (“modern” music), versus Brahms (tradition). From the Portland Symphony Orchestra under Ken-David Masur, candidate for music director, I got the kind of game that makes one want to turn off the TV and go to bed.

It had a few exciting moments but most of it was, shall we say, uninspired. It should be mentioned that the fans loved it, giving standing ovations to the Liszt Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major, brilliantly rendered by pianist Ran Dank, and the glorious final movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68.

The program began with the overture to “Tannhäuser,” in the slowest version I have ever heard this side of a slipping turntable. The interpretation provided some moments of knightly nobility in the brass, but mostly revealed Wagner’s string-section fillers. .

It was followed by the Liszt concerto, one of my least favorite compositions. Its opening motif, which crops up all over, is said to have proclaimed: “This, you do not understand,” and is as irritating musically as it is philosophically.

The concerto is basically a show-off piece, and Rank managed its extreme difficulties with ease. One place that Liszt shows some imagination is in his brilliant treble passage work (there is surprisingly little bass) and in this Dank excelled. The pianist demanded a slightly brisker tempo than displayed in the Wagner piece, but there is little for the orchestra to do anyway. The famous triangle was there, and some nice duets with the woodwinds, but that was about it, except for blaring the”understand” passage once in a while.

As readers may have noticed, I am a a confirmed Brahmsian, and it was with horror that during the first moment of the First Symphony I began to wonder when it would end. The tempo was so slow that the opening melody was lost in chaos for a few bars. Ditto the summer serenade of the second movement.

Things began to pick up in the allegretto grazioso, which is lighter than air, and finally accelerated to a reasonable tempo in the final movement, one of the great treasures of the world. It worked in spite of a completely inaudible passage that I noted as “invisible pizzicati.”

At the las moment, flocks of angels came to Masur’s rescue, bearing the music up with heavenly horn calls, some of the best I have heard, and leading into the fabulous final melody. Now I began to wish that it wouldn’t stop.

Throughout the concert the musicians gave their all, but they must have been dumbfounded by what the conductor was asking most of the time. Young people like to reinterpret the classics every generation, but there are limits.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

 

Classics from South America, at the Franco Center

MIchael Lewin, Pianist
Franco Center, Lewiston
March 10, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
One of the finest, and most unusual, piano recitals of the year happened Friday night, Mar. 10, as part of the 2016-17 Piano Series at the Franco Center in Lewiston.

Michael Lewin, Professor of Piano at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, after acclaimed recordings of Debussy, Scarlatti, Liszt and Charles Tomlinson Griffes, has begun to explore Latin American classical music, and his discoveries made up a large part of the program.

Lewin’s technique is astounding, but always in the service of a musical imagination which contains a refreshing amount of intellectual curiosity. One his recordings deals with musical depictions of birds, and another with music inspired by the spirit world.

The program began with the Beethoven Sonata No. 3 in C Major (Op. 2, No. 3), which is not heard very often, perhaps because its transitional nature, moving away from Mozart and Haydn into his own realm, but more of a showpiece than an expedition into new territory. It does, however, offer premonitions of more characteristic work, while illustrating why the young Beethoven was in demand as a performer.

It was followed by the fiendishly difficult Sonata No. 1, Op. 22 (1952) by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). In discussing the work after the concert, Lewin explained that he played it with the score, since he was still perfecting its performance. The work is so complex, dense and rapid that it doesn’t seem as if a score would help in playing it. Even turning the pages was a virtuoso exercise.

Like his compatriot, Astor Piazzolla, Ginastera uses Latin dance forms primarily as a framework for  complex musical ideas and imagery. In fact, these musical echoes may not even be deliberate, but part of each composer’s heritage, sounding “Latin” only to northern ears.

My favorite section of the 15-minute sonata was the Presto Misterioso second movement, with its combinations of chords and sprays of notes at the extreme ends of treble and bass.

After intermission, Lewin played shorter dance works by Erensto Lecouna and Ernesto Nazareth, and “A lenda do cobaclo” (Legend of the Native) of Heitor Villa-Lobos. Lecouna (1895-1963) is best known for “Malagueña,” but his “La conga de la media noche” shows what “The Cuban Gershwin” could do with more sophisticated musical forms and “modern” harmony.

Lewin is known as a Liszt performer, and the final works on the program were the “Petrarch Sonnet,” No. 123, and the “Mephisto Waltz,” No. 1, masterpieces of musical imagery. The encore was an early Scriabin Etude.

The Franco Center piano series remains too much of an undiscovered treasure. Its artists are the equal of any performing in Maine, the venue and its acoustics are superb, and the price is low (including champagne with the pianist). Kevin Ayesh is coming on April 21, and I urge all lovers of the piano to attend and discover what they are missing.

 

Christopher Hde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal.  He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.