Saturday, April 28, 2007

The End of Era of Russian Maestro

The death of Rostropovich ends the era of Great Russian musicians. Rostropovich represents what Russian blood represents for in music performance: brilliant technique, titanic power and stirring emotion. As quoted in a recent article: In Russia, people don't go to music for entertainment, they go to feel life.

Slava has brought his life, which is bigger than most of people into his music. The cello is a beautiful match for his personality: never tepid, thick and warm.

Several years ago, I was listening to a CD, with Rostropovich playing Britten's cello suites. The technique was, even from an outsider like me, challenging. But he sounded effortless, yet so profound and deep. Later on, I found out he and Ozawa were going to give a free concerto in the music conservatory. It would surprise those agent nowadays that such great artists did not want a commercial performance. All they want is to talk, perform with the young musicians in the conservatory. By the time I got the news, there was no seats left: A typical China thing. (Unfortunately, I missed him again in 2002 when he gave a concert in Heinz Hall. )
Yet from his recordings, he still feels big, grand yet humane.

Here are some of my favorite recordings by Rostropovich.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Kremer and his Kremarata Baltica

It has been difficult to see Gidon Kremer in grand symphony halls of big cities. His new recordings with his Kremarata Baltica Chamber Orchestra have been exploring new music and redefining what’s in or beyond classical music. Those titles such as “After Mozart” or “Eight Seasons” sometimes baffle me: They sound like a young artist’s new installation with conceptual-wrapped titles; attracting public attention but exposing uneasiness and lack of confidence at the same time.

But Kremer is no new face any more, although the trace of his music exploration is elevating and thought-provoking for the self-closeted classical industry: After conquering the standard repertoire, he went further to champion those modern pieces, especially those by composers still alive even before the works acquired an established position. Kremer is unpredictable in the way that his new violin sonatas and partitas by Bach can easily win the raves of music critics yet it was followed by a bizarre performance of decomposing Vivaldi with Piazaolla.

Gidon Kremer’s appearance in the Carnegie Music Hall has been long expected in steel town. Interestingly, the day before he arrived in Pittsburgh, he and his orchestra gave another performance in Carnegie Hall in NYC. In the last concert of the current season from Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society, a lot of Russians showed up, with their binoculars, CDs and past memory. The concert programe was unfamiliar not only because it would bring works by Korngold and Piazzolla, but also because Gidon would play transcripted Schumann’s Cello Concerto on his Guarneri and Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue would be played by a chamber orchestra.

Kremarata Baltica Chamber Orchestra is extremely young and fresh. No conductor was presented throughout the concert. Orchestra members switched their seats regularly so that even the first Violin changed for different works. But I have mixed feeling of their Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. With two extra bass players and a middle-sized string band, the gigantic work sounded more symphonic and fervid. The polyphonic structure was naturally rounded into a cohesive voice, impassionate and keen. The orchestra also inherited some of Gidon’s own style: bold in technique yet restraint in volume. Yet the intimacy of the string quartet format cannot be traced in this expanded arrangement. The beauty of string quartet lies in that conversing happens at the same time of the performance, and the fine quality is reached by mixing personalities and styles of each individual members: In Takacs string quartet, Edwards’ refinery is boldened by Karoly’s ardent rhythm and balanced with Andras’ warm humor. Similarly, Pacifica Quartet was instantaneously marked by Simin’s fervent energy and smiles. Here, in Kremarata Baltica Beethoven felt titanic yet remote; the effect was persuasive, ye the music remains admirable but untouchable.

Schumann’s work brought Gidon Kremer from the back stage. After turbulent Beethoven, the orchestra sounded luke-warm for the concerto. The registered violin tonality by Gidon Kremer couldn’t distinguish him from the rest of the string orchestra. Schumann’s orchestration does not match those by Richard Strauss or Berlioz. Most successful Schumann’s recording relies on the transparency of the orchestra; but here the whole orchestra was painted almost in a single color, although sheer in itself, lacked the diversity and excitement that could keep music alive. For the first time, Schumann’s cello concerto sounded more like a work from Mantovani.

The second half brought the work by Korngold. Although Korngold is known more as a film composer, the work in the program, Symphony serenade, bears traits from romantic period. The second movement featured a fast pizzicato and the third movement was serene and broad. It was the last piece, Four Seasons by Astor Piazzolla that showed Gidon Kremer ‘s heart and technique. Without any doubt, Gidon was born for Piazzolla: the unconventionality, unexpected abrupt turn, the rugness of the texture, the gritty tango rhythm and most of all the natural spontaneity and improvisation match Gidon’s own personality. If there had had no score stand, he may have well walked off the stage in the performance. The young members in Kremarata Baltica accompanied the master in an almost cabaret fashion, with smiles, ease and freedom. The expressive yet non-narrative melodies and fast changes in tempos heated up the music hall and cast magic spells that intoxicated the young audience but confused some old listeners who walked away without additional encores.

Interestingly, under the light surface of the music did I find the unbearable heaviness of Piazzolla: The harsh texture combination and avid tango tempo were always followed by soul-melting elegies sung by the cello, then when the same fast tempo tune re-appeared, it only tried in vain to express the joviality and leaked out what it was really for: an outlet of uneasiness of life and uncertainty of future.