23 September 2013

Chopin for a Winner

Typhoon Usagi effectively denied me the anticipated musical highlight of my week when the Hong Kong Observatory announced that the typhoon was due to hit at around the same time that Alina Ibraginova and Cédric Tiberghien were due to hit the stage of the City Hall.  However, in a way I’m glad it didn’t happen, because I suspect it would only have been an anticlimax after what came out of the blue as the most riveting musical experience for quite some time.

That riveting musical experience did not come, however, from the early evening organ recital at the Cultural Centre.  Polish organist Gedymin Grubba was a new name to me – perhaps surprisingly since, according to his biography, he has performed an average of 100 concerts a year for the last decade or so – and he certainly has some pretty agile fingers and toes.  But he has no idea how to build a programme which is going to keep 900 or so young Hong Kongers absorbed and while, on their own terms, Buxtehude and Bruhns can make scintillating listening (especially that wonderfully eccentric Fugue subject in the Bruhns E minor Praeludium) putting them both together with one of Bach’s more obtuse chorale preludes (An Wasserflüssen Babylon – I have to confess I much prefer Boney M’s take on Psalm 137) does rather weigh things down. This superfluity of North German Baroque might have been balanced by a set of chorale variations by Grubba’s compatriot Jan Janca, but despite a succession of nice chords, this turned out to be a very watered down imitation of Flor Peeters’ Op.20 Variations (which is, itself, a very watered down version of Dupré’s Op.20 Variations) which was so stop-start in its progress it never had a chance to bed down in the consciousness.  Even the Guilmant at the end of the recital failed to raise the spirits.  It was the first movement of the Fifth Sonata, and why anyone would end a recital with a first movement defies all logic; is it that the player thinks the composer is so bad he begins a major work with something which should really end it?  Personally, much as I admire and love Guilmant’s music, I’m not sure he should even have begun his Fifth Sonata; this was not a piece which showed him off in a good light, its saving grace, so far as Grubba was concerned, was that it included – like just about everything else in the recital – a fugue.

More fugues came in John Estacio’s Brio which the Hong Kong Philharmonic played later in the evening at the same venue.  True, the work outlived its usefulness by a good five minutes (it stretched to around 13), but it had lots of pulsating rhythmic drive which the HKPhil violins articulated with impeccable crispness.  Canadian conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni kept it all tightly under control, and it proved to be a good test of the newly adjusted Cultural Centre acoustics (achieved, it would seem, mostly by placing Perspex screens around the stage canopy – which I have to confess I find immensely distracting because they offer a high-level reflection of part of the orchestra.  When I first saw it at the Asian Youth Orchestra concert last month, I wasted time when I should have been listening to the music staring at the screens trying to work out which section of the orchestra I could see playing upside down in them).  Nevertheless, the acoustic changes have brought the sound right into the middle of the stage, coagulating it into a homogenous whole which takes off some of the edge, but balances things much better.  The real test will come, of course, when a solo violinist takes to the stage – has the acoustic change got rid of that awful blind spot  where the soloist stands? – but in the meantime it’s a definite improvement.

The acoustics took quite hammering later in the concert with a tremendously exciting account of the original (1911) version of Petrushka.  Ever since I saw Stravinsky himself conduct it in London, I’ve been convinced that the 19i11 is the best way to hear Petrushka and that the subsequent orchestral suite is a sadly desiccated version . The Hong Kong performance – bringing an orchestra of around 100 on to (and off) the stage – was no neat, tidy or polished affair by any means, but it had raw energy and was greatly enhanced by some tremendous off-stage drumming between acts. (What a shame nobody thought to open the door on the other side of the stage – as it was we heard the drums funnelled out of one door, sent across the stage to hit a solid wall and then bounce back to create something not dissimilar to a tap dance training session held in an echo chamber).  There was some gorgeous flute playing and wonderful sounds coming out of the brass, and while Zeitouni had his work cut out to keep everybody more or less going at the same speed, it worked splendidly.  But even this arresting and absorbing performance was not the highlight of my musical week.  That came with some Chopin.

Regular followers of this blog will know that Chopin and I do not see eye to eye, and that the First Piano Concerto is a work the point of which I have consistently failed to grasp.  I won’t say I had a Damascene moment, but Louis Lortie had me so enamoured that when the Concerto ended I turned to the lady beside me, who had spent the entire Concerto coughing, and declared “Wasn’t that lovely!” (She misunderstood me to mean her coughing, and carried on all the way through the Stravinsky.) It was an enchanting performance; graceful, poised and, above all, utterly, utterly lovely.  What made it work for me was the attitude of both Lortie and Zeitouni who clearly were not investing it with any great emotional or spiritual depth but merely relishing the sounds it made.  Lortie metaphorically ground his teeth while the orchestra drifted through their long and pointless preamble, but then burst on to the scene with a relish, and before long was taking all the credit, floating up and down the keys, adding some lovely touches of dynamic light and shade (how rarely we get those in Chopin where most pianists seem to feel rubato is the prime means of expressiveness) and throwing in the odd gesture – like a left hand waving while the right does some arpeggios or a right hand ending an upward sweep with a kind of karate chop off the end of the keyboard.  It was a delight to watch and delight to hear, and if Lortie followed it up with a shameless outburst of virtuosity in an encore (which might have been by Chopin but I suspect was by Liszt) of such vacuity that afterwards I wondered whether I had actually heard it, who cared?  Chopin won the day for me this weekend in Hong Kong.

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