Orion Weiss with the Salzburg Marionettes: Schumann, Debussy

Not sure why this has been sitting around as a draft, but I'm belatedly posting it now; good music is always relevant:

Really glad I finally decided to go see and hear the Salzburg Marionette Theatre with pianist Orion Weiss play Los Alamos on Nov. 1 (2014), because Weiss' Schumann was a revelation, and his Debussy superb as well.  With relatively spare sets and costuming, the Marionettes accompanied Weiss in Schumann's Papillons, Opus 2, a succession of short dance movements bookended  by an introduction and finale.  The Marionettes' storyline seemed to involve a love, or at least flirtation, triangle.  Relatively lighthearted, as was the music (at least for Schumann).  The music was my main focus and it held my attention.  Superb music, superbly played.  Perhaps even better were the two longer pieces, played without Marionette action, the Blumenstück in Db, Op. 19, and the Novelette no. 8 in F# minor.  I'm no expert on Schumann's piano music, but I have the impression that many of Schumann's longer works in general can be difficult to interpret effectively---it is easy for them to appear unstructured, longwinded, and/or even a bit repetitive.  No such problem here.  Long developmental passages had a definite trajectory, and both on the level of phrases and the overall structure, Weiss penetrated to the musical meaning of the piece instead of just letting the notes unspool.   When I spoke with Orion after the concert he mentioned that it can be challenging to make the main theme in these pieces still meaningful, and bring something new to it, each time it recurs; he definitely succeeded.  I've sometimes felt like the Los Alamos Concert Association's Steinway D can sound not quite brilliant enough, and perhaps like the action is a bit heavy, slowing things down a bit.  Not so much recently, though.  I enjoy hearing how different that piano can sound each time a different artist plays it, and Weiss got a great tone out of it, balanced between brilliance and purity and warmth and complexity, and played with great facility though not in a technically showy manner.  (I suspect that just to sound at ease in these pieces is quite a technical challenge!).

Unfortunately although Weiss has quite a few CDs out, for example Scarlatti sonatas, and Rhapsody in Blue (on different CDs!) on Naxos, his Schumann is not available on disc.  If he ever puts out a disc of Schumann, I'll snap it up; in the meanwhile I'm going to investigate the piano music in more depth.

After intermission, we were treated to Debussy's relatively rarely performed La Boîte a Joujoux (The Toy Box).  This was explicitly composed as music for a marionette ballet, and the sets were much more elaborate and beautifully done, the music and action perfectly integrated.  The music, appropriately, is a tad less adventurous than the great piano-only works like the Preludes, with perhaps more standard sounding pentatonic and whole tone material, and a bit less complex and coloristic harmony, a bit more emphatic and regular rhythm at times (and explicit punctuation of the action), but still, very rewarding, and perfectly played.  Atogether a wonderful, transporting evening of music and stagecraft.

Addendum:  I found this Nov. 2 post by the piano technician for LACA--- if it refers to the previous night's concert, as the photo of the artist also suggests, then I join Orion in thanking him for a great job getting the piano ready.

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.