Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dear Friends

Hello All You Beautiful People!

For once, this is neither a rant nor review, but instead, gratitude for the appreciation and acknowledgement you have given us over the past few months of our nascent weblog.

We are now at over ten thousand page views, a milestone for this fledgling endeavor.  A delight it has been to see just how many of you have interacted, commented on, and supported our efforts.

Your encouragement has provided us with the impetus to continue to speak fearlessly.  Strange it is that many of you agree that much music criticism is corrupt.  We (and a few others), bound only by a sense of decorum, have decided to keep it straight and unburdened by lucre.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Not A Fan

   Mitsuko Uchida is a pianist that has baffled this listener for a quarter of a century. Her latest release of three of Schumann’s works on Decca could be heard as a pinnacle of her artistic efforts, the culmination of a lifetime’s cultivation. Admirably presuming to muscular intellectuality, her precise measurements of all dimensions musical could perhaps be visionary in this digital age.
It could be argued that this is her vision of an un-medicated Schumann, but this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding - classical music should always please. Like listening to graphs, her expression ranges from the abacus to the adding machine, the calculator, and perhaps, if a computer were fed Schumann’s oeuvre it might produce interpretations similar to our pianist.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pretty, Yes, And Musical

   About pianist Jan Lisiecki, Canada’s frankly adorable golden boy, circumspection would be the better part of valour. It would be wrong to discourage this fine pianist at the start of his success and disparage his considerable accomplishment of recording the Chopin Etudes for Deutsche Grammophon, so this article is proffered as an aside. I sincerely hope this does not come to the attention of someone who possesses a delicate sensibility; a young man who clearly loves playing his instrument. One wonders if, in the middle of a hopefully glorious career, he might think back to this recording and blush.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Elgar Cello Concerto - Four Recent Recordings

Weilerstein: B-,  Bailey: D+*, Clein: A, Queras: B
(*Indianapolis Symphony: B+)
Alicia Weilerstein’s sincere telling that Daniel Barenboim’s invitation to record the Elgar with the Berlin Staatskapelle fulfilled a lifelong dream, hints at this performance’s undoing.  His well-documented dishonorable relationship with Jacqueline Du Pre, whose interpretation of the Elgar has ensnared the imaginations of young cellists for three generations, provides a clue to this recording's predilection.  An unhealthy partnership was established between soloist and conductor in that Ms. Weilerstein, whose assured playing harkens to Boccelli’s beautiful young girls, scrupulously observes Mr. Barenboim’s every prescription regarding nuance, shape and structural bearing. This detailed style is touching at the beginning, interesting, then tedious, and the Lento sinks from its heaviness (why do cellists make their shifts more important than the notes?).  Vulgar is the variation in the last movement when Ms. Weilerstein joins the lower strings in unison, which sounds like a chorus line of bearded bears in a BDSM club.  Mr. Barenboim, though sure of mind and hand, dominates this music to the point of bludgeoning it.  Overwrought, and hued with a bright technicolored palette, around this endeavor is a haze of creepiness suited more to the imaginings of Richard Strauss. 
More natural and balanced comes Carter’s Cello Concerto. In Mr. Carter’s mature style of lean textures and transparent dialogue the crystalline structures of this music are not exactly realized, though well pitched are its gargles and gutterances.  Ms. Weilerstein earns her wings as a ‘serious’ musician by championing this work.  Alisa writes that parts of these seven sections are ‘fun’ to play: Carter’s work is seldom if ever fun to listen to, so kudos to her.  
Zuill Bailey’s skills at self promotion perhaps eclipse his achievements in Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The tendency towards sharpness, glib tempos and vanished orchestral accompaniments confirm that the center of the world is not the phallus, but Zuill Bailey’s. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Great Danes, Not Great Works

  The Danish Quartet’s appealing and considerable abilities were squandered in a post modernist program proffered by Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Society Two. The evening’s concert, of the American Peter Lieberson’s Piano Quintet, the Dane Hans Abrahamsen‘s Ten Preludes for String Quartet, and the Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for clarinet and String Quartet should have been bracing, refreshing and soulfully meaningful. Through the weakness of the selections, it was a night of constriction, triteness and exasperation. Mr. Lieberson’s Piano Quintet is written in a post-serial language spiked with consonances and melodic contours with plenty of various intervals larger than an octave. The plethora of quarter and eighth notes of the first movement, Celebratory and Joyful, was as rousing as falling bowling pins. In the second movement rhythmic interest was more developed, but not so harmonic. The concluding fugal section was a gloss on Cape Breton fiddling music that the composer heard in Nova Scotia where he was a director of a Buddhist meditation program. Though somewhat enlivening this grey porridge, it still lacked enlightenment. The pianist was the dynamic Gilles Vonsattel.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

CrackCritic’s Rant The First

Dear Friends,
   Crackcritic was ill on a recent sojourn to visit his mother in Texas, and so can only rant deliriously about a dinner with old friends, all successful musicians.

   In what Texan capital city did the broadsheet actually print this line in a concert review: 
“’This is stressing me out,” someone said in the seats behind me. She was reacting to the just-finished first movement of Bartok’s violin concerto, and it was a fair response to a composer who is rarely soothing to listen to.

Who is the prominent composer that, after writing a critical private letter to the editor regarding this review, received this snide, tart dismissal: “You guys are elitists.” (He told us, “I will never speak to her again. They’ll trash me in that rag, and so what?” He also canceled his season subscription to this city’s fine regional orchestra.)

Who is the the newest board member who used this review as justification for her new ‘Program Committee’ to censor pieces deemed unsuitable to the public (hers)? Her musical discernment apparently ends at Suzuki Book 4.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Horn Ruled The Evening

Of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s season opening concert in Carnegie Hall Wednesday October 23rd, the most anticipated piece on the program was Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Ian Bostridge was the big name draw, having the reputation as the greatest English tenor recitalist today. The undisputed hero of the evening, though, was French horn player Stewart Rose, St. Luke’s solo horn. With a deep sensitivity to the ambiguities of the music and its far ranging texts, Mr. Rose’s seemingly instinctive commitment and vivid volatility put Mr. Bostridge’s pat professionalism to shame. The solo horn call in tones of natural harmonics harken to prehistory. Somber here, Mr. Rose’s most subtle tempering made this savory to the modern ear. Mr. Bostridge, a lovely long-limbed lad, lithe of voice and shape, has a naturally pure and clear voice that hangs well on high; his pitch is pristine, and his legato lightly honey-hued. A glaring technical defect, however, is his diction, crisp as overcooked alphabet soup. Perhaps this is fashionable. One of the tenor’s memorable moments came in the second song, Tennyson’s Nocturne, at the lines:

               “Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
               “Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.”

To hear comprehensible words, and beautiful ones, was like the opening of a window in an airless room, and thrilling was the tumbling of voice and horn.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fried and Biss, Violin and Piano, Mother and Son

Violinist Miriam Fried and her son Jonathan Biss 
were presented by the 92nd Street Y as a part of its Distinguished Artists in Recital series last Saturday November 2nd, offering a lovely program of four marvelous sonatas. My response to what began in this duo’s foolhardy opening choice with Leos Janacek’s terse, challenging Sonata (carelessly described by the NY Times as “delightful”) quickly evolved from stunned to baffled, settling on detestation.

The violinist was clearly audible in exactly three places this evening; the opening of the Janacek, and in the opening bar of the first movement and the little cadenza in the final movement of Beethoven’s last violin sonata. These are the moments when the piano doesn’t play.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sven’s Symphonies Lost in Pockets

 (….from the liner notes…)
    “When furnaces turn into fairy castles, memories take over. We know that we could ideally shape and mould what lies ahead and everything past remains mercilessly incomplete.”
   “When the smaller clock hand has moved around those 12 numbers twice, it is the start of a new day. Always. Without exception.”
   “Whole chapters of life become snapshots from Polaroid’s epic paintings.”
  “12 symphonic seals that leave an imprint on our stamps of longing for meaningful sensitivity behind.”
   Behind? Whose behind?
   Of these mind numbing, jaw clenching dicta from the tortured attempt of the annotator (who will remain unnamed) to make sense of Sven Helbig’s Pocket Symphonies, let’s call his efforts valiant. However, this slick project released by Deutsche Gramophone stains this distinguished firm’s reputation. The cool shades of grays and blues for the photographs of the fine musicians make them look like the well-tended sons and daughters of organized crime bosses, and well matched to this music I call contemporary overproduced classical Muzak.

Thursday, October 17, 2013


October 9th
 Orpheus concluded their season opening program in Carnegie Hall with an exuberant reading of a crackling-with-energy Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. Incisively led by concertmaster Todd Phillips; winds and brass most often glowing in intonation and principal solos spiritedly relished; it was a tonic to hear this music played with a classical sense of balance. The turmoil of the development of the Allegro con brio was menacing nearly to violence, but never ugly.  Perhaps the Funeral March moved at too fluid a pace, emphasizing poignant remembrance over wrenching grief - were they too keen to attend the wake? The Scherzo’s pastoral horn trio was poised with great dignity, and the Finale was an unstinting delight without vulgarity. Here there were no über-musicological agendas, but simply the joy of these excellent musicians sharing a masterpiece.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

BACH Plucked and Feathered Part 2

Chris Thile, the undisputed king of bluegrass mandolin, might raise eyebrows by presenting his first volume of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. Bach by Hillbilly….audacity? Hubris?

Mr. Thile approaches this music with the humility of an acolyte, without the baggage of traditions, mannerisms or preconceptions, and with the assurance of a star whose mission is to make people happy.

From some of our greatest violinists we have been trained to expect weighty, ponderous, even turgid interpretations; the heavier the more ‘meaningful’, so it is astonishing to hear this music played clear-eyed and fleet of foot.

BACH Plucked and Feathered Part 1

Switched on Bach; the Swingle Singers’ Bach; Bach played by polka bands; Bach on saxophone, trombone, vibraphone: Bach, Bach, Bach. And now, mandolin transcriptions. Who wins? Bach!

Deutsche Gramophone’s release of Mr. Avital’s auspicious debut recording of his own transcriptions with the Potsdam Akademie showcase this musician’s formidable technique. However, his arrangements and this recording suffer from irreconcilable issues of balance: why is the mandolin replacing the keyboard in the D and G minor Concertos, and the violin in the A minor? As provocative and impressive as this concept is, it is unrealistic to deny that the mandolin is not an instrument of projection, and seldom is the relationship easy between soloist and orchestra in this dense contrapuntal music.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Bach By CARR

Wigmore Hall Live documents Colin Carr’s complete Bach cello suites on two consecutive performances in May 2012. Though he is among England’s pre-eminent performers whose reputation is haloed by a stellar pedigree, his pronouncements of this music are, more than intellectually chewy, too often gummy. His Bach is well-seasoned, with a career's worth of traversals in the cultural capitals of the world, but his anxiety producing entrapments made a second hearing more than enough.
Though he is esteemed for his probity, I take umbrage at his preachy scholasticisms, despite their formal clarity.  His attitude of a well-worn lecturer makes me question where the line is drawn between an informed interpretation and a displeasing one. This introduces many dichotomies: the rhythmic distortions used to clarify harmonic contrapuntal structures; conspicuous mannerisms favored by cellists, among them blaring open strings and tones denuded by non-vibrato (or strangled by it) and the self involved music making at the expense of a small dedicated public.

Monday, August 26, 2013

JANINE: Gripping. EMERSON: Girdled.

   A young friend recently asked how musicians form conceptions of works and how much creativity shapes performances. His request provided a framework to compare two recent recordings of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The Emerson Quartet is joined by Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr in an album which includes Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, and the young star Janine Jansen and her loyal, unknown friends pair the Schoenberg with the Schubert Cello Quintet.
   In classical music you need notation and imagination. There are conductors and soloists whose hopefully thoughtful interpretations are unified by their perception. In chamber music, ostensibly among equals, the level of complexity among competing aesthetics, egos and accomplishments seldom render this treacherous idiom exhilarating.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Ammonia mixed with chlorine makes mustard gas. Sauerkraut downed with sparkling water is a recipe for disaster. Cutting-edge programming used to be Schubert followed by Bartok, now it's Sweelinck paired wth Wuorinen. Tonight ICE took one (mis) step further, interspersing one or two movements at a time, of Beethoven's septet Op. 20 (1799) with the world premiere of George Lewis' Born Obbligato (2103), an ICE commission.

Might it have been better to splice the two works bar by bar, or, play them simultaneously? Despite polished star turns by violinist David Bowlin, cellist Katinka Kleijn, clarinetist Joshua Rubin and David Byrd-Marrow on horn, this juxtaposition seemed to burden the players. Intonation was not always easy. Beethoven's bumptious charm was here hard-edged and would have benefited from the subtle virtuosity of conductor Steven Schick, who directed Born Obbligato. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Sunday 18 August 2013

ICElab’s fourth concert in their residency at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival offered four world premieres, all written this year. Celebrating a dynamic multi-culturalism, this afternoon featured works by the African-American Tyshawn Sorey (b.1980) and the Brazilian Felipe Lara (b. 1979).
   A rising figure in the hermetic world of serious free improvisation, Mr. Sorey’s Acts II hit the ground running and hardly paused for air. The tour de force animalistic apoplexies from the brass (trumpet and horn) were led by the composer himself on the trombone. Pitted against them were the struck and pluck instruments (piano, percussion and electric guitar) which were no less frenzied. Well done in his piece is the balance of the violence of the free improvisation that ‘resolves’ to more static forms of layered rhythmically stable ostinati.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


August 15, 2013

On Thursday, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart presented the second of the International Contemporary Ensemble’s ten concerts in their provocative residency. These superb performers' valiant efforts nearly sustained this program too dense for a summer festival. William Schimmel, the éminence grise of the accordion, set the stage with his transcription of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Distinguished by his command and charisma, this not entirely successful arrangement’s exploration of the instrument’s idiomatic polychromatic adornments whetted the palette for the rest of the program. Some could argue it contributed to Goethe’s message, but not, I think, to Beethoven's.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Oddly Billed, Mr. Bell

Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Joshua Bell

The forthrightness of this article may be condemned by some, but the phenomenon of Joshua Bell, International Superstar Violinist, seems often to impede his artistic maturity and interfere with his music-making. Blessed with the peerless Academy of St Martin in the Fields in their latest release from Sony of the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies of Beethoven, this inevitable career step oddly bills Mr. Bell as conductor and concertmaster.  

Questions spring to mind: Does he play sitting or standing? Where? If seated, how does he not stab his stand partner? Does he play from full score, violin part, or memory? If from score, who turns the pages? He has played with orchestras, but has he ever played in one? If this is meant to start a trend, could one hope for Sarah Chang’s Bruckner 6th, or Mahler’s 4th from Midori? Hilary Hahn’s The Planets

L'Attacca Entre!

Amy Schroeder, Keiko Tokunaga (violins)  Luke Fleming (viola)  Andrew Yee (cello)

The Attacca Quartet’s exciting debut release on Azica Records features the music of John Adams. This fortuitous association began at Juilliard when the group accepted the daunting challenge of presenting, on short notice, the first movement of his String Quartet (2008).

This grand work’s shape is sprawling like spilt liquid, yet bold in its transparency (could one say this two part work is in classic sonata-allegro form, whose second movement is its displaced development?) The bustling music of the opening, chattering and suave, is sleek and brash in the recapitulation, after violist Luke Fleming’s plangent, impassioned pleas inspire his colleagues to a section of tender soaring singing. The active music in the next part starts with glittering ascending passagework which transforms to a flickering repeated note fabric that supports the former’s aspirations reduced to a two note rising motif. The closings of both movements are inconclusive and disquieting – the first hushed, the second desperate. The best quartets offer a world made intimate: the cumulative effect of this masterwork is as powerful as a late Sibelius symphony.

The Tao of Pooh

Conrad Tao, piano

Voyages, Conrad Tao’s second release on EMI follows "The Juilliard Sessions" by a year.  This 18-year-old pianist begins respectfully enough with Meredith Monk’s short trip, Railroad, whose inclusion seems an unstated embrace from the official sphere of high postmodernism. 

Vivien Schweitzer of The New York Times kindly and gently mediates the words and thoughts of the young master. In the notes we are told: “Audiences should be inspired to think about musical journeys, not just from A to B, but rather between A and B.” This hermeneutic, though well and fine, reveals a failed flaw – B is not A, and if it is, what then be between a thing and itself? 

In the set of Rachmaninoff Preludes, each one begins well and some begin beautifully, but they quickly bog in the minutiae of technique and meander without destination or distinction.  Rachmaninoff judged the success and vitality of a performance by the realization of the pivotal point upon which rests the musical structure. Ultimately, Mr. Tao’s two-dimensional interpretations are DOA. 

Garrick's Gorgeous Griffes


Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Hyperion presents Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ sublime music played ravishingly by pianist Garrick Ohlsson.  Chronicling the evolution of his decade-long career from an urbane cosmopolitan Impressionism to a style of supple abstraction cut short in 1920 by his death at thirty four, this recording is sure to rectify an inexplicable neglect of this early 20th century master through the astonishing efforts of Mr. Ohlsson. 
More than his complete habitation of this music, the affinity of performer and composer is eerie – they share an overwhelmingly imaginative sensuality, rich and lush, without Debussy’s morbidity or Scriabin’s theosophy. The aural delights are tactile in these works so wonderfully written for the instrument. If Chopin is known as the ‘Poet of the Piano,’ can we call Griffes the ‘Painter of the Piano?’ Let’s stroll around the gallery.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Death Speaks To No One

Music of David Lang
Shara Worden (vocals), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Owen Pallett (violin), Nico Muhly (piano)
Cantaloupe Music

Our unending fascination with death grants a great latitude to artists that create works on this theme. With requiems, they range from Verdi’s bombast through the gentle benedictions of Fauré’s to the soothing abstractions of the medievalists. In this last mode, death speaks, David Lang’s song cycle on his album of the same name, the text is a compilation of fragments of phrases from Schubert lieder where the singer assumes the voice of Death personified. One wonders, what can the composer know of this and how successful is his expression? He calmly invites us to a beautiful place of light – of comfort – of joy. The musical language stripped to the simplest harmonies; melodic shapes and small intervals, supported by a monochromatic sonic backdrop of repetitive phrases unique to each song; show the composer absenting himself so his audience can meditate the more deeply on his message.