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A Panoply of Piano Play

On Tuesday of last week, and again on Friday, Alfred Brendel — current patron saint of thinking piano aficionados — played music by the usual dead Viennese (Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert) in the usual concert garb (white tie, tails) to the usual sold-out house at Disney Hall. On Thursday, on the same stage, Lang Lang, current superwhiz idol to a whole ’nother variety of piano fanciers, wooed another sold-out house with another kind of music — the Rachmaninoff “Full Moon and Empty Arms” Second Piano Concerto — which he performed in a Chinese shirt of fetching fuchsia. And while you would have thought that the audience for Lang Lang’s performance might have torn the place apart during his performance, and especially between movements of the concerto, to inform him of their approving presence, quite the opposite took place: His taut, surprisingly well-controlled performance kept the crowd in check until the final note had skyrocketed through the hall, whereupon, of course, chaos descended. (The encore — surprise! — was not the expected trapeze act, but Schumann’s quiet Träumerei, quietly played.) By contrast, the sadly misinformed audience for Brendel’s Friday program, which he shared with his son, Adrian, in a program of Beethoven cello sonatas, took it upon themselves to applaud after every movement. You just never know.

Brendel has been a generous presence these past few weeks: an eloquent shaping force with Matthias Goerne in the Winterreise I wrote about last week, a fine soloist (with David Zinman and the Philharmonic) in Beethoven’s C-minor Concerto, a solo recitalist and, finally, the duo program with his son. This last event was disappointing for other reasons than the audience’s behavior; Adrian seems a proficient rather than an expressive musician — not ready for prime time, as a friend aptly put it. But the Beethoven cello sonatas somewhat favor the piano anyhow, and even though memories of my old Emanuel Feuermann–Myra Hess recording of the A-major kept flooding back upon me, it was the beautiful points made along the way by the elder Brendel that were most worth carrying home afterward.

The solo recital (wherein the audience behaved itself admirably) abounded in such points. The first half was all early Mozart — those sonatas in the Köchel 200 that nobody takes seriously enough, that are easy to play through at home but then round corners into astonishing harmonic turns that catch us up short. Brendel played two of these, as big, serious music, and that was a revelation. He began with more unfamiliar Mozart, a C-minor Fantasia (K. 396, not the more famous K. 475) and revealed a remarkable, forward-looking piece of large-scale sonata-form structure that, once again, is worth anyone’s study. Brendel then went on to the marvelous, late Klavierstücke of Schubert, prophetic works from his last year in which foreshadowings of Schumann and Brahms are uncannily present, and ended with Beethoven’s Opus 109 Sonata. The memory I most happily cherish was Brendel’s shaping of light and shade as Beethoven’s achingly beautiful final tune re-emerges from clouds and refreshes itself whole in the final measures. For this one can forgive the Missa Solemnis.

 

Richard Goode is another of our distinguished, white-haired piano eminences, and his recent Royce Hall recital drew a large crowd. Schumann’s Davidsbündler Dances, which bulked large on the program, were handsomely and imaginatively played, but they do try the patience: 18 short pieces in pretty much the same language, alternately brave and droopy, with no sense of why we have gone from No. 13, say, to No. 14. The evening’s great work was Janácek’s two-movement Sonata October 1, 1905, serious, bitter celebration of a revolutionary event in the composer’s native Brno. With Mozart’s stark A-minor Sonata at the start and Chopin’s G-minor Ballade at the end, the program did somewhat lean toward the somber; perhaps the Schumann was needed, after all.

Not much in music is as stark, however, or as somber, as the Eighth String Quartet of Shostakovich, which we have had here twice in recent weeks. Shostakovich wrote the work in shock upon his first visit to war-ravaged Dresden in 1960, when the effects of the Allied bombing were still to be seen. With all the jabberwocky (true or false) written about inner meanings and autobiographical contents of this or that work, the “secrets” of this quartet are fairly clear. Its musical motto is the composer’s own musical signature: D-S-C-H (with the “S” standing for the German E flat, the “H” for B). The quartet has had a second life in Rudolf Barshai’s transcription as the Chamber Symphony, and it is equally compelling that way.

Either way, it tears you apart. At the Philharmonic, played by orchestra members, it served as pre-concert entertainment to David Zinman’s performance of that composer’s Eighth Symphony, an obscene juxtaposition if ever one was. (Alfred Brendel’s performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto came between the two to soften the blow.) From this hourlong collection of spare parts, assembled by Shostakovich as World War II wound down, I get nothing: no sense of coherence, nothing from the kicky scherzoid moments that hadn’t been better expressed in earlier, shapelier works, no power from the affected oratory of the slow movements. “If there’s a theme here it escapes these ears,” writes program annotator Herbert Glass of one particularly sticky moment. If there is music here it escapes these.

At UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, the Eighth Quartet served to conclude a dazzling evening by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, the new ensemble out of Canada that has become the darling of the chamber-music world. Everybody loves them for the sheen of their performance style, and the way they have of playing straight out to the crowd: something like the Lang Lang approach, except that they play better music. At Schoenberg they gave an edge-of-the-seat performance of the Shostakovich; before that they played the Ravel Quartet with such elegance, such purity, that it seemed to hang suspended. Before that they played Osvaldo Golijov. Their best-selling disc (on EMI/Angel) has the Golijov pan-national repertory: the phenomenal Yiddishbbuk inspired by inscriptions from Prague ghetto walls, the klezmer-inspired Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind (with clarinet), and his Last Round, which the Philharmonic has done here orchestrally. At Schoenberg the St. Lawrence played just the Yiddishbbuk, haunting and exhilarating. Get the disc, and be prepared to dance on the ceiling.

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