Review: Chopin’s First on Inauguration Eve, Philadelphia Orchestra

Thursday, January 19 2017
Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Louis Lortie, piano

Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)
Stravinsky, Petrushka (1947 version)

It’s been nearly five months since my last blog on the subject of music, five months since the last time I attended a concert in New York City.  I did catch a performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto while on vacation in Bergen (Norway) in early September, as well as a spectacle of Beethoven’s Ninth while traveling in Kyoto (Japan) over the holidays.  I didn’t blog about them here, partially because the fjords and the temples felt more exciting than Elgar and Beethoven, and partially because even on vacation I was preoccupied, first with baseball as summer turned to fall and then with the election’s aftermath as fall turned to winter–the same preoccupations, really, that kept me from Carnegie Hall all season long.  I wasn’t going to blog about the concert in Philly either–I was in town for a dentist appointment and decided to stay for some Chopin–but the experience just needed to be shared here and now.

Mostly, I have to share what happened before the regularly scheduled programming.  As the musicians took their seats, we realized there was no piano on stage.  (That, and it was a full orchestra with a tuba.)  But the Chopin concerto!  Was the pianist sick?  Don’t tell me I stayed in town for nothing.  Then Yannick walked onto the stage and assured the audience that the piano concerto was still on, but first the orchestra had prepared a surprise.  They were going to perform a piece of music composed during WWI by the female composer Lili Boulanger and finished by her sister Nadia Boulanger, who picked up the piece after Lili’s untimely death at age 25.  Nadia was herself one of the first prominent female conductors in the world.  The composition is called D’un matin de printemps (Of a spring morning). I’ve been to hundreds of classical concerts and had never seen musicians perform an unprogrammed piece except as an encore; it was perplexing, especially since Yannick made a sly but clear reference to the orchestra practicing it in the morning, so it’s not a spur of the moment addition.  It was only later that I understood this was a subtle (or not so subtle) sign of support for the Women’s March, which is a really lovely showing of solidarity.  I must listen to the music again–with stylistic connections to Debussy and Stravinsky, two composers I’m not particularly fond it, I zoned out at the time, but expect deeper a connection now that I have context.

The ensuing Chopin was also an experience that I will remember for a long time, not because the performance was great–in fact it wasn’t even good: the orchestra sounded hollow at times, messy at others, and under-rehearsed throughout; the pianist was mechanical and without nuance, covering up what I suspect to be lack of finer control with speed; all in all probably the worst I’ve ever heard from this orchestra and far below the standards of the last time that I’d heard the piece in person.  But on this evening none of that mattered.  The First Piano Concerto, like much of Chopin’s music, is melancholic but leaves one feeling invigorated instead of in despair.  Indeed, from its vulnerability comes strength, and from its wistfulness comes hope.  So apropos of the eve of the inauguration that the music, transcending the performance thereof, left me breathless and nearly in tears.

Emotionally drained and physically exhausted by the intermission, I was mentally checked out by the Petrushka, which I can’t bring myself to love even in the best of circumstances anyway.  I do think I like the original 1911 version better than the 1947 revised version performed here.  To be honest I really have no idea what the music is about, but the winds and the percussions seemed to have fun (perhaps deranged fun).  And why not, the orchestra’s woodwinds is as about as good as it gets.  Though I had pondered ditching the second half of the program, even in my listless state I don’t regret a single minute spent in this familiar concert hall.  It will always feel like home, so not getting back to my actual home until 2am is a small price to pay.

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Review: Yundi Li’s All-Chopin Recital

Wednesday, March 23 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Yundi Li, piano

Chopin, 4 Ballades (1831, 1839, 1841, 1842)
Chopin, 24 Preludes, Op. 28 (1839-1841)

Not that long ago, if you had asked me what is the single greatest pairing between a classical music composer and a present-day musician, I would have said, easy, Frédéric Chopin and Yundi Li.  Back in the days when I only listened to Rachmaninoff and Chopin, I was absolutely transfixed by how Mr. Li’s graceful technique brought out every shade of melancholy in Chopin.  At the same time, he was never indulgent, a quality I admire greatly.  True, for several years now there have been rumors–even supposed video evidence–of Mr. Li’s musical decline, and last summer he had given a lackluster performance of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, but surely he wouldn’t disappoint back in his element with an all-Chopin recital, would he?

In retrospect, I think disappoint was probably not the right word.  Disappoint suggests having an off night, a performance subpar of one’s usual standard.  Mr. Li did not appear to have an off night.  A shell of his former self is who he is now.  There were occasional moments of brilliance–the grandiose octaves in the development section the opening ballade, the dirge-like A minor prelude, the persistent yet fleeting Raindrop–but overall the pianist seemed to merely be going through the motions.  His technique hasn’t regressed terribly, but gone is his very special ability to disarmingly draw out a graduated palette of sounds while expressing starkest emotions in lightest touches.  The ballades were vapid and not as clean as they could be, and the preludes were rushed and lacked contrast as a set.  In Mr. Li’s defense, his fans are a part of the problem.  For this particular recital, the over-enthused but under-informed audience burst into applause at a dramatic point before the final measures of Ballade No. 4, breaking any spell in what was the pianist’s best ballade of the evening.  Later in the second half of the program, it was as if Mr. Li rushed through the preludes out of nervousness that if he didn’t, the audience would clap and once more detract from his efforts.

More generally, Mr. Li’s artistic decline has dovetailed with his commercial rebranding.  With the insistence that he now be referred to as YUNDI–first name only, all caps–and an ever-growing number of crossover-type concerts on his schedule, one gets the sense that Mr. Li is struggling with an identity crisis whereby his disciplined style of artistry clashes fundamentally with the kitsch his brand is now built upon.  (Unlike a certain other Chinese pianist, whose style thrives on kitsch.)  The beautifully-interpreted encore of an early-20th century Chinese piece (Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon by Ren Guang) notwithstanding, does Mr. Li even play anything other than Chopin these days?  Maybe some Beethoven or Liszt occasionally, but what why has such a talented pianist not branched out more?  The most likely cause is complacency with his existing repertoire on the parts of both the artist and those around him, particularly his fans.  Don’t get me wrong, Chopin is enough for a lifetime–I’d know, kind of, as I have literally tried to learn some preludes and nocturnes one measure at a time–but I suspect that, just as few mathematicians can elevate an isolated field to new heights these days without forging connections to other fields, even someone with such a kindred connection to one special composer needs the perspective of other music to age well.  Certainly Mr. Li has achieved enough for a lifetime and is entitled to apply his talent to whatever makes him happy, but his current trajectory is a shame for the rest of us.
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Review: Maurizio Pollini with the New York Philharmonic

Friday, October 16 2015
David Geffen Hall, New York, NY

New York Philharmonic
Alan Gilbert, conductor
Maurizio Pollini, piano

Berlioz, Le corsaire Overture (1844)
Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy (1880)
Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1830)

Even for New York City, this week is quite special in its classical music offerings.  On the heels of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit to Carnegie Hall, tonight a piano legend returns to the New York Philharmonic for the first time in 20 years with the concerto that launched his career: Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin’s 1st, a can’t-miss event for which I broke my concert budget and was so excited about all week.

So imagine my panic when the 1 train I was on stopped for nearly 10 minutes between 34th and 42nd, threatening to make me late.  I tried to relax by reminding myself that it wouldn’t be a huge loss if I missed the opening Berlioz overture.  Chopin’s legacy–partially French as it is–aside, the French canon doesn’t do much for me.  The notes are nice individually, but the whole usually feels less than the sum of the parts; I can’t quite pinpoint why.  Le corsaire Overture, the inspiration of which was either James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Red Rover or Lord Byron’s poem The Corsaire (either way, a writer of the Anglosphere, how un-French), is an especially poor match for the New York Philharmonic due to the piece’s brass highlights and the orchestra’s one-note, loud-for-loud’s-sake, brass section.

But, that’s OK, I’m certain nobody bought a ticket to the concert just to hear the orchestra play Berlioz.  Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, while quite possibly the most over the top Romantic piece I have ever heard, ingeniously retells the story of the star-crossed lovers in less than 20 minutes, something that takes Prokofiev two and a half hours and with ballet dancers.  In Tchaikovsky’s version, the piece starts with the dignified but foreboding friar’s theme, which gives away gradually to the agitated warring between the Capulets and the Montagues.  The action slows with the love theme, played separately by the English horn (Romeo) and the flute (Juliet).  After more battles, the love theme returns, this time loudly and with the English horn and flute intertwined, signaling that the lovers have consummated their marriage.  Consummation of love is of course punishable by death, which is promptly marked with two cymbal crashes.  A final battle ensues, followed by a sweet homage by the woodwinds to their fallen comrades.  I can’t say that the Philharmonic added anything to either my interpretation or enjoyment of the piece, but it was a solid performance.

After the intermission we arrive at the main event: Pollini playing Chopin.  Chopin’s 1st piano concerto is expressive, nuanced, equal parts strength and vulnerability, joy and melancholy, and far far beyond the composer’s 20 years at the time of its premier.  It’s also an exception among my favorite piano concertos in that it is the only piece in which I can discern no structure, by which I mean that for as many times as I’ve listened to the piece (weekly if not daily), if you played me an excerpt, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you which movement it is from.  All of the themes seem to blend together into something so blissfully that it shuts down my analytic functions completely.  My favorite recording is the one by Krystian Zimerman with the Polish Festival Orchestra, which explores every nuance of the music and enhances whichever sensitive mood I might be in, furthering a tendency of indulging in sadness as a means to perceive beauty.

Maurizio Pollini is one of the most lauded Chopin interpreters of all time, and he had played this concerto on his way to winning the 1960 Chopin Competition.  Most world-famous musicians, as technically fluid as they must be, also–by and for design of their fame–cultivate a somewhat flashy brand in personality or demeanor.  Pollini is the complete opposite.  His upper body exhibits minimal movement, and his playing is crisp and unembellished.  In the age of Lang Lang and Khatia Buniatishvili, this is refreshing.  On the other hand, I really feel that Chopin’s 1st is a piece that allows for some indulgence, and Pollini’s detached style, combined with a few missed notes, did not do it full justice.  (The sacrilege!)  Compared to the Zimmerman version, Pollini’s performance, though probably temporally perfect, lacked warmth and emotion, and the piano floated above the orchestra instead of within it.  This hardly mattered to the audience though.  After the pianist played his last note, the orchestra still had a few seconds left, but the audience was already clapping.  A standing ovation for maestro lasted a full five minutes, and the New York crowd only reluctantly dispersed when it was clear that he was not going to give an encore.  After all, one can always nitpick, but Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin is still darn close to as good as music gets.
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