Saturday, May 12, 2007

Garrick Ohlsson Return

During the pre-concert talk, Jim Cunningham, WQED FM89.3 host interviewed with the conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier. Tortelier speaks near-perfect English, but in a French manner: soft, passionate and somewhat floating around as if he could forget the topic just after a few words. Occasionally, his pronunciation would betray his identity such as precision which sounded broken at every syllable and thus elongated. But when he talked about Ravel, his face shone like shimmering and his smiles were self-absorbed yet enticing at the same time. “Debussy and Ravel are the climax of French music”, he declared, “Although between mysterious Debussy and magic Ravel there is other great music”. Jim used Bolelo as an example to describe the sense of forwardness that characterizes Ravel’s music, and borrowed the beginning flute melody of Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune to demonstrate the deep understanding of chromaticism and orchestration in French Music.

It was the first time that I could listen to Mother Goose Suite live. And I was so glad that such a unique experience was enhanced by Tortelier’s masterful conducting art. Under his baton, PSO’s sound was supple, responsive and sensitive. To address the fairy tales of each movement, Tortelier brought the nuanced phrasing for each sentence, as if every melody line is endowed a life with a beginning, an end and a beautiful harmonic “arch” in between. Except “Petit Purcet”, all other moments are less narrative, more or less describing a mood. As Jim indicated, the progressiveness seems to be inborn with the melody so that even when the tempo was unperturbed, the music flew at ease like a perpetual motion machine.

With visual aid, I was immediately captured by Ravel’s orchestration: In Empress of Pagodas a celesta brought mysterious oriental atmosphere; while a trio with violin, oboe and flute sang gracefully in Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty. In most of the time, the string section kept a very soft and warm sound, ranging from pianissimo to mezzo piano while the wind section lit up the ever-changing color. To some extent, I agree with Jim’s statement about French coloration. Yet Debussy’s orchestration is more profound to me because chromaticism, harmony and dynamics can hardly be separated from orchestration in Debussy’s music. A lot of Ravel’s piano music has been magically transcripted into orchestra works but such success seldom happens to Debussy.

Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra followed the affable Ravel. During the interview, Tortelier said although Lutoslawski was not as well-known as Bartok, but his Concerto for Orchestra was equally good as that from Bartok. (Interestingly, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is scheduled next week for comparison.) The beginning of the first movement was spectacular. The stirring motives moved quickly from lower register upward, swept the whole orchestra with strong statement. The second movement was played in a hushed texture, yet the melody lines were not at all nocturnal. Instead those murmuring projected a sense of anxiety and uncertainty, thus light in sonority but heavy in music thoughts. The third movement started with a Passacaglia which progressed in repetition from different orchestra sections. But the coda sounded extremely long and tiring, as if to show off the quality of each instrument, the climax had to be sustained for more than the actual length of the rest of the movement. Even at fast-tempo and fortissimo, PSO members made the sound clear with definite driving forces. But the overall effect failed to impress me and approached closer to violence and discordance in my ears. In comparison, I felt in love with Bartok’s work almost instantaneously. The raw, rigorous rhythm, the undefined or lost consciousness and prime yet explosive vitality epitomize (maybe except his string quartets) Bartok’s musicianship. But most of all, the solo instruments are highlighted within the symphonic integration. Here in Lutoslawski, efforts sounded too contrived and less persuasive.

Returning to Heinz Hall, Garrick Ohlsson kept his exploration in Rachmaninoff and brought the concert to its climax. A late student of Arrau, Ohlsson possessed formidable skills, even one of the most demanding repertoire piano concerto No.3 sounded effortless through his naturally gifted hands: thick, big yet flexible. Ohlsson started the beginning in an unobtruding manner: fluent with an almost unnoticeable hairpin, (I still like the beginning of Ashkenazy’s early performance better: a sense of sorrow was sung in lighter volume) but soon the melody progressed into a solo climax. Where Ohlsson played seemingly too clear soon paid off in those cascading technique-challenging parts, where Ohlsson's performance was coherent linearly with a deep understanding of overall structure. In recapitulation, Ohlsson painted the same tune in a half-dull gray color as if the memory slowly came out of the veil. Suddenly the underline Russian melody became sentimental and yearning. For that moment I was lost in the residual of the melody.

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