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A growing apprecition: Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich

Melnikov and ShostakovichPerhaps it has been a deficiency in my musical education, but I have found it hard to warm to Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.

Written in 1950-51 and influenced by Bach and in a lineage of prelude collections by Chopin, Scriabin, Busoni, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, these works have generally remained on the outskirts of the repertoire.

This is changing however, in part due to the championing of Alexander Melnikov, who will give us a still rare opportunity to hear a significant portion of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues on November 13. This will certainly be the first time I will hear more than one or two of the prelude-fugue pairs at one time.

Because of Melnikov’s program, and more because I am turning pages for this performance, I thought it incumbent on me to learn more about this great composer’s magnum opus.

My new appreciation began with the arrival of Robert Markow’s programme notes. He wrote: “In their vast range of textures, figurations, rhythmic devices, characterizations, compositional procedures and moods, Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues rank as one of the monuments of twentieth-century piano literature.” You can read the full set of notes here.

Alexander Melnikov wrote in the liner notes to his own recording, “we hear the voice of a tormented man, finding again and again the superhuman force to face life as it is – in all its variety, ugliness, and sometimes beauty.” Hear more about Melnikov’s thoughts on Shostakovich in this video.

There is no doubt all of this is revealed in Melnikov’s 2010 recording, which has contributed to a rediscovery of the Preludes and Fugues and the next stage of my appreciation.

Played with “clarity” and “virtuosity and audacity” (The New York Times), the Neo-Classical elements of the pieces resound, and Shostakovich’s response to his self-imposed aesthetic restriction is endlessly inventive and inspired (imagine writing in a clearly defined tonal centre in the 1950s!).

Each listening of Melnikov’s recording exposes the depth and breadth of these bold works and, as suggested in The Guardian, “Alexander Melnikov makes you wonder why these works are considered monotonous or didactic.”

Indeed, I now have to wonder why it is we do not hear these works more frequently, and how it is they have been missing in my musical appreciation. That has all changed in the hands of Alexander Melnikov.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

Alexander Melnikov performs at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, November 13 at 3pm. Tickets are available from the VRS Box Office, call Cory at 604-602-0363. Tickets are also available from Ticketmaster either online at ticketmaster.ca or call 1-855-985-2787 (service charges apply).

Music and Politics: a perspective

The connection between music and politics has had a long, varied and interesting history. National anthems inspire a country’s patriotism, and protest songs rally a down-trodden populace. Music has become so important to today’s political campaigns that their success can almost hinge on a well-chosen song.

Classical music has had many great moments of political connections, whether or not it was initially intended by the composer. A hymn by Hebrew slaves longing for their homeland in Verdi’s Nabucco (“Va pensiero”), resonated during a period of Italian emancipation from the Austrians and French.

Beethoven was an earlier proponent of political statements with Wellington’s Victory and the “Eroica” Symphony. Benjamin Britten wrote his masterpiece War Requiem, underscoring the futility of war, and John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer examines the killing of an American Jew by Palestinian terrorists.

Recently, classical music performances have been targeted as forums for political protest due to the alleged affiliations of the musicians. Just last month a concert by the Israel Philharmonic was interrupted by a chorus of chanting protesters in London’s Barbican, and not so long before that, audiences in London and Edinburgh endured stop-and-go performances as protesters continually interrupted the Jerusalem String Quartet.

The latter ensemble, a long-time Vancouver Recital Society favourite, gave a very fine performance at the Chan Centre on Sunday, October 2. At this event, our patrons were ‘greeted’ by peaceful protesters handing out leaflets; happily the performance proceeded without an accompanying chorus.

Two days before the performance we learned of the potential presence of protesters, setting off a little flurry of emails and phone calls with the Chan Centre staff, UBC security and even the RCMP. The goal was not to prevent a protest, a civil right, but rather to ensure the safety of, and be respectful to, the ticket-buying public.

This goal was achieved for our patrons, but a similar respect was not, unfortunately, offered to the musicians. The distributed pamphlet, which was cleverly designed to complement the VRS program, effectively put words into the mouths of the four musicians. It was written in such a way that it was misconstrued by a few as coming from the Quartet or, as the pamphlet claims, “the ambassadors of apartheid.”

Responding to an earlier situation, first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky said, “I don’t think we are controversial as musicians. The protests that happened [in London] were based on a wrong assumption — that we are presented, employed or supported by the Israeli government. That is categorically untrue.”

Regrettably, without balanced information some of our patrons took the information to heart and have expressed anger with the Jerusalem String Quartet. In some cases the anger has extended to the Vancouver Recital Society for (supposedly) providing a forum for political ideology.

It is our hope our patrons take the time to learn more about the Jerusalem String Quartet, as there is most definitely more to this than the singular point-of-view distributed on Sunday. A starting point could be the VRS Facebook page where you will find a letter by violist Ori Kam who wrote in response to the recent protest against the Israel Philharmonic.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

A Passing Thought

GiltburgOur 32nd season opened this past Sunday with the Russian-born, Israeli-based pianist Boris Giltburg. He may be young (27 years), and he may not be a household name, but he left no doubt he is an artist to watch.

The buzz in the lobby at intermission was great: one woman described to me his ‘magic fingers’ and the beauty of the tone Boris summoned from the piano. No bashing here.

Boris’s program avoided the crowd-pleasing, bravura works that are often the mainstay of the recital stage, but his repertoire of Prokofiev, Bartok, Franck and Liszt still would have tested the mettle of any pianist. For me, what really set his playing apart were the breathtaking, gossamer pianissimos (if you attended the performance, think of the slow movement of the Prokofiev Sonata). Anyone who has played an instrument knows, it is one thing to make a loud sound, it is entirely different to produce the quietest tones and still have your instrument ‘speak’ with clarion tones.

Boris was charming and gracious in the question-and-answer session that followed his performance. It made the afternoon all that more special to have a glimpse into Boris’s life as a touring musician and his insight into his artistic choices.

Thank you Boris – it was a great way to begin the season!

We would love to hear what you have to say about our opening recital. You can leave your comments here.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

PS  Boris graced us with two encores: the Rachmaninoff arrangement of Kreisler’s Liebesleid, and the Prelude in C sharp minor, again by Rachmaninoff.

The Season Begins

Murray PerahiaOnce again we have a season of musical treasures that will be yours to discover over 21 performances, plus one very special presentation. To start this season we present the Vancouver debuts of two young musicians: pianist Boris Giltburg and violist Maxim Rysanov.

Boris Giltburg first came to our attention through a long-time friend of the VRS, who had heard him in Kansas City. Following what was obviously a stirring performance, she immediately called to say we MUST book this pianist. With that recommendation, his marvellou s reco rded performances and critical comments (including comparisons to the legendary Artur Rubinstein, no less), how could we not bring Boris to Vancouver so that you could hear him for yourselves?

As a violist, Maxim Rysanov has chosen the much-maligned instrument that, for some, is known more as the butt of jokes than as a solo instrument. But that is not the case with Maxim, who has staked out a solo career typically the domain of the violinist or cellist. Moreover, when you hear Maxim’s performance of Bach’s Suite, any thought of his instrument’s status will quickly vanish when you are treated to a sound and interpretation that seems “just right”. We are also pleased to welcome back Eldar Nebolsin, who made his recital debut on our series in 1998.

The third performance is our beloved Jerusalem String Quartet. We love them, and our audiences love them, and that is why we keep bringing them back to Vancouver.

Hopefully you know we have slipped in a very special presentation this season: the return of Alfred Brendel to Vancouver on Friday, October 21. Delivering a very special illustrated lecture, titled Does classical music have to be entirely serious?, this is a rare opportunity to hear the unequalled insight of a great pianist and musician. Tickets have sold very quickly for this presentation and there are very few remaining at this time.

We look forward to seeing you very soon as discover together the great musical treasures that lie ahead.

Leila Getz and Paul Gravett

Serving Up Virtuosity

I read with interest a New York Times article (found here) about the plethora of virtuosi currently found on the concert stages.

According to the author, Anthony Tommasini, there are perhaps more technically gifted pianists now than at any other time. Compositions that were once the exclusive domain of the rare pianists are now commonplace on the concert stage.

Interestingly, Tommasini suggests today’s concert-goer does not necessarily appreciate the upsurge in technical prowess due to the simple fact that phenomenal technique is now expected.

Tommasini goes on to describe reasons for the increased dexterity (“learning to practice the craft better, becoming better conditioned”), as well as two types of pianistic groups: those who have the technique to play anything and those who have the technique to play the music that is most important to them.

Throughout the article many pianists are cited, almost all of whom are very familiar to the VRS audiences. We posted a link to the article on the VRS Facebook page last week. In response, David Gordon Duke wrote that the article “made me think about how remarkable our Vancouver recital diet has been over the years”.

Perhaps with a little bravura of our own, we thought it would be fun to list the pianists mentioned by Tommasini along with some of their performance dates.

Yuja Wang (November 2008, May 2010); Lang Lang (October 1999, March 2002, November 2004, October 2008, January 2011); Yundi Li (April 2004, April 2006); Pierre-Laurent Aimard (October 2003, October 2007); Nikolai Lugansky (February 2009); Piotr Anderszewski (March 2003, October 2008); Richard Goode (February 1998, April 2001, April 2005, February 2007); Jean-Yves Thibaudet (January 1999, April 2001); Evgeny Kissin (September 1996); and Stephen  Hough (February 1991, October 2000).

It reads like a VRS season made in heaven!

We are equally proud to be presenting three more mentioned pianists in our upcoming season: Kirill Gerstein, the Gilmore Artist Award-winning pianist performing on Thursday, April 19; Alfred Brendel, who offers a lecture on Friday, October 21; and pianist András Schiff, who will perform with baritone Christian Gerhaher on Monday, May 14.

The Vancouver recital diet has indeed been rich, and the Vancouver Recital Society is more the pleased to provide the menu.

Paul Gravett
Executive Director

P.S. Mr. Schiff made his Canadian debut on our series at the Arts Club on Granville Island in 1982. Leila describes it as “one of the landmark concerts of my life”.

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