Ensembl Mitdvest: Muczynski, Bach, Birtwistle, and Dvorak at Kastelskirken, Copenhagen

At Kastelskirken in the Kastellet fort in Copenhagen today (19.11.2017) a wind quintet drawn from the Danish Ensembl MidtVest played Robert Muczynski's woodwind quintet, opus 45; J. S. Bach's Partita in A minor for solo flute and basso continuo (bass clarinet); Harrison Birtwistle's Five Distances for Woodwind Quintet, and an arrangement by David Jolley of Antonin Dvorak's String Quartet # 10 in E minor, opus 51. With its white rectangular interior and tall mullioned windows with clear panes affording views of the 17th century buildings, with their steep tiled roofs, around the spacious raked-gravel courtyard inside the fort, and the Danish state flag with swallowtail streaming in the wind, as well as strollers and the occasional patrolling pair of soldiers on the grassy outer rampart, Kastelskirken was an atmospheric location for a concert on a blustery late-fall afternoon. The quintet is Charlotte Norholt, flute; Blanca Gleisner, oboe; Tommaso Longquich, clarinet; Niel Page, horn, and Yavor Petkov, bassoon.

I did not previously know American composer Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), and am delighted to have been introduced to him. The wind quintet is a super piece, in a melodic, more or less tonal style, with plenty of brio and humor at times, especially in the opening Allegro risoluto, but also beauty and seriousness, especially in the second movement (Andante). His style is personal rather than derivative, but to give a rough idea what to expect, one might cite some commonalities with impressionism, flecked with a little bluesiness in places (to my ear); Poulenc and other composers of that era; Rorem, William Schuman, and others of that ilk, even while I had a clear sense that he was aware of post-tonal developments and able to incorporate aspects of them where it made musical sense. A great pleasure to hear and I will seek out a recording and other chances to hear it again. An interview with Muczynski by classical DJ Bruce McDuffie is very much worth reading.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Bach also. Flutist Norholt used quite a bit more rubato than I'm used to in Bach, especially in the very familiar first movement of this piece, but it was not an impediment to enjoyment.

It's always good to finish off the first part of a program with a substantial, crowd-pleasing potboiler to send folks into intermission with, and the MidtVest did just that with Harrison Birtwistle's Five Distances. The English composer, born in 1934, is generally considered a pretty austere, uncompromising atonal composer, and this was no largo sweetota, but the piece has structure, recognizable recurring elements, variety and beauty. The MidtVests' performance seemed perhaps more expressive and intense, than the Boulez/Ensemble Intercontemporain performance I linked above, though it's hard to compare a live performance to a recording. The audience (which I estimate numbered around 70-90) seemed to have no trouble connecting with it, and it received a rousing round of applause.

After the break, an excellent performance of a familiar and well-loved Dvorak string quartet, arranged for wind quintet. At first I though it was missing something in the phrasing that could perhaps only be provided by the original strings, but fairly quickly settled in to enjoying a committed and successful performance.

An excellent concert all round, with the superb, and to me, unfamiliar, Muczynksi and Birtwistle pieces real standouts. Kudos to the MidtVest for top-notch playing and for succeeding with an adventurous program.

Bach, Johannes-Passion, Bachchor und Orchester Hannover, Marktkirche

I attended a performance of J.S. Bach's Passion according to St. John (Johannespassion) by the  Hannover Bach Choir and Orchestra last night at the Marktkirche in the central market square of Hannover's old town. I may or may not have listened my way through this work on LP as a youngster, and probably did overhear it on the stereo growing up, but this is probably my first careful listen to the whole piece. (About two hours, no intermission though a brief episode of tuning between the two sections.)  A very rewarding if, obviously, fairly solemn two hours.  Really superb choral singing with the different vocal parts sufficiently distinct and the words very clear (well, especially with the aid of a program given my limited German) but the choir unified.  Remarkably dramatic effect when the choir portrays the crowds present at the high priest's and Pilate's interrogations of Jesus, contrasting with the choir's other main role as expressing Christian sentiments from a point of view that is not necessarily within the narrative aspect of the piece (but might also be taken so, as expressing another aspect of experience of some in the crowd).  The latter is usually in hymn-like chorales, but also often (as in the opening "Herr, unser Herrscher dessen Ruhm") in more complex and extended episodes with more involvement of the orchestra.  The visible wind instruments were baroque in appearance, there was a large lute, and I suspect the string section and most or all of the rest of the orchestra was original style instruments as well.  Tempos were relatively fast, and the resulting sound was excellent, though for some reason the orchestra came across with less clarity than the singers---the relatively reverberant acoustic of the tall, relatively open North German gothic brick hall church maybe having something to do with that. On balance I think the original instruments and the chosen tempos gave a somewhat rough, unprettified, but still accurate and well-played, effect that worked extremely well in the piece, accentuating its seriousness.  Some passages, in which the choir and orchestra engaged in extended contrapuntal reflection upon a dramatic development, or expression of the crowd's intention or reaction, with voices and instruments becoming a swirl of fast-moving harmonies and passing tones, attained an eerie and dramatic effect that reminded me of some century postserialism, maybe Ligeti or Penderecki.   The soloists were really excellent and did everything well.  Such a performance is definitely not about attention-getting individual vocals but all the soloists did have, in performances that were consistent throughout, some songs that really stood out in expressing key moments in the drama.   Alto Christian Rohrbach has a beautiful clear voice and delivered "Es ist vollbracht!" perfectly; the soprano soloist (either Miriam Meyer or Nadine Dilger; two sopranos are listed in the program) was especially affecting (though never overdoing it) with "Zerfließe, mein Herze" ("Dein Jesus ist tot!"); bass Albrecht Pohl did a great job of handling a variety of vocal tasks in combining the role of Pilate with many additional bass arias.  Johannes Strauß was especially outstanding as the Evangelist---he has an amazingly clear and beautiful tenor voice, deployed with perfect control.

Of course an extended piece like this with religious and dramatic aspects is an occasion for plenty of reflection on musical aspects of the piece but also on these in relation to the human condition.  One of the more interesting aspects of this piece for me was the amount of attention given to the political and social aspect of the story: the interaction with Pilate (I don't fully understand what's going on here yet), the issue about Jesus being called "King of the Jews" but asserting "My kingdom is not of this world", the high priest and the servant, and later the crowd after the exchange with Pilate "Shall I crucify your king?" "We have no King but the Emperor", calling for Jesus' crucifixion.  (There seems to be an emphasis on "the Jews" delivering Jesus to Pilate and calling for his crucifixion in this text.)

A superb, clear, controlled and well-thought-out performance and a perfect way to get better acquainted with this serious, reflective, many-faceted masterwork of Bach's.

Jeremy Denk plays Schumann and Bach at Los Alamos

Jeremy Denk played Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze and Bach's Goldberg Variations at Los Alamos' Duane Smith Auditorium last Saturday (January 12), presented by the Los Alamos Concert Association.  A wonderful experience to hear two long works, each consisting of a sequence of many short pieces, and each among the pinnacles of keyboard music of their respective (romantic and baroque) musical eras.  Do not miss a chance to hear Denk play this repertoire.  The Schumann is a fascinating compendium of romantic gestures and episodes, only occasionally rambling and soft-edged as Schumann can be, mostly quite focused and beautifully shaped.   Denk's touch, as compared to some pianists, seems just slightly firm, and sometimes a bit monolithic on chords, sometimes slanting his interpretations towards the architectonic rather than the lyrical.  This could be quite piano-dependent, of course, and is not a bad thing.  In any case the last 10 minutes or so of the Schumann were pure song as played by Denk.  The Goldberg was a magnificent experience, sometimes recalling Glenn Gould's 1950s version with fast tempos (though there was no sense of excessively fast tempos overall), and great clarity, especially rhythmically.  Inner voices were often brought out, though less compulsively and analytically than by Gould.  In this piece Denk, playing a 9-foot Steinway, got an effect somewhat like a performance on a large, powerful, harpsichord---a coherent, speaking-with-one-voice impression, while still taking advantage of the piano's more lyrical potential when called for.  Very rarely, the faster tempos in certain variations left me momentarily feeling confused about the beat, but that might have been due to a momentary lapse of attention on my part, and in any case was made up for by the powerful overall impact of those same fast tempos.  Denk's touch is relatively precise, but not excessively glassy or percussive, rather just slightly soft-edged, keeping things clear and well-defined but without getting clanky and aggressive nor dry.  Just beautiful in the Goldbergs.

We got Mr. Denk back out for an encore: he played a fairly lengthy, and very familiar piece by Chopin in a somewhat dreamy, musing mood... probaby a ballade or nocturne...I should know the name.  It was magic.  Somebody brightened and dimmed the house lights accidentally toward the end, making the audience laugh, and breaking the spell a bit, I thought.  Whether the spell was broken in his playing, or just in my attention, I'm not sure... a shame, but not a huge one, since as I said most of the encore was pure enchantment.

Denk is about to record, or perhaps has just recorded, the Goldbergs;  I plan on getting it when it comes out.  I'm also very interested to see he's recorded some Ligeti, and Ives' Concord Sonata... I listened extensively to Gilbert Kalish's wonderful version of the latter masterpiece on a Nonesuch LP a couple of decades ago, but from what I've heard of Denk's playing, I'd love to hear him do it.