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O’Riley Visits CCMS for Duo with Putnam


The Concord Chamber Music Society’s second concert of its 12th season on Sunday afternoon, November 20th, featured an invigorating program of Fauré and Brahms violin and piano sonatas, spiked with four transcriptions/elaborations of other composers’ works by Franz Liszt for solo piano. The estimable performers were Wendy Putnam, violin, and Christopher O’Riley, pianist.

Putnam is a violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and is also the founder and director of CCMS. O’Riley is a gifted pianist whom one hears infrequently as a recitalist, perhaps due to his admirable efforts as the host/chief “enabler” of the NPR/PBS broadcast programs From The Top,  a hugely entertaining showcase for youthful musicians. O’Riley travels all over the country in search of kids with outstanding classical music talent; he then provides them an enormously important launch pad by his broadcasts and often accompanies the kids from the piano. For this alone he deserves a medal of some sort, as he is nurturing the performers of classical music’s future. Sunday offered the opportunity to hear O’Riley as a soloist and a sonata collaborator, and in these he proved quite a talent indeed.

His and Putnam’s program opened with Gabriel Fauré’s melodic and engaging Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in A Major, op. 13. This music, not played nearly often enough, is a gem of the repertoire. Its many charms disguise particularly challenging parts for both players, challenges not completely met in this performance. While there was pleasing give-and-take, this sonata requires more nuance and color and firm arrivals at climaxes than was offered. A wider range of color would have been nice, as there was a curious monochromatic feel to the performance. The piano, a venerable and very brightly voiced New York Steinway, was simply too bright for this music. Perhaps it was voiced more for the music to follow? In any case, the instrument worked against allowing a truly French effect to permeate the unique sound world of Fauré. The performance was accurate, to be sure, but a bit earthbound. Fauré surely should soar and sing. Yet, one is grateful for the rare opportunity to hear this wonderful piece, and the few quibbles mentioned above did not diminish the enjoyment of the audience, whose applause was genuine and heartfelt.

O’Riley introduced the next selection, Franz Liszt’s entertaining Réminiscences de Don Juan (after Mozart’s Don Giovanni), LW A80. Showing the enormous charm that has informed his broadcasts, O’Riley characterized the forthcoming music as Liszt’s encapsulation of three essential elements of the Mozart opera, though not in the opera’s original order of events: “Hell, Girl (seduction thereof), and Party.” This, he explained, better suited the dramatic exposition of Liszt’s transcription. With that, O’Riley began tearing into the fearsome challenges Liszt throws at any mere mortal who dares to play this fiendishly difficult music. Hell’s fires raged, the Girl was suavely and successfully courted, and the Party was definitely festive as projected by O’Riley’s blurred hands ranging from the top to the bottom of the keyboard, and surely all the notes in between. The piece is so over-the-top that it inspires occasional amusement in the listener in the midst of the torrents of sound. O’Riley was largely successful in his essay of this somewhat crazed work, though signs of fatigue began to appear as he approached the final measures. No wonder, after all. The piece is a monster that fully challenges all comers. Well-deserved bravos punctuated the applause at the music’s end.

After intermission, O’Riley returned with three more Liszt transcriptions, two of which were odes to spring: Robert Schumann’s Frühlingsnacht and Franz Schubert’s Frühlingsglaube, both original songs given Lisztian feathery filigrees of sweetness and light. These were a welcome a contrast to the stormy bombast of the Don Juan heard earlier. O’Riley then offered a unique presentation of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Because Liszt had set only the Liebestod, apparently, and not the Prelude, O’Riley went in search of a suitable transcription of the Prelude. He found it in a very abbreviated setting by the virtuoso German pianist/composer Moritz Moszkowski. Still not satisfied with Liszt’s setting of the Liebestod’s final measures – Liszt had omitted Isolde’s final cadential notes – O’Riley pluckily added these essential notes to Liszt’s score. So what O’Riley offered was his “amalgam” of the Wagner Prelude and Liebestod – a transcription fashioned from the music, O’Riley noted waggishly, of “Wagner, Liszt, Moszkowski, and O’Riley.” It was very effective. One wished for a bit more of the Prelude, but most of the Liebestod was there, and O’Riley’s emendation of Isolde’s crucial cadential notes indeed did help the finale. Kudos to Christopher for construction and performance!

Wendy Putnam returned to the stage and offered a powerful performance with O’Riley of Johannes Brahms’s seminal Sonata No. 3 in D Minor for Violin and Piano, op. 108. Here both artists seemed more at home than in the Fauré, and this music was the more successful collaboration of the afternoon. Rife with rich Brahmsian melodies, and in the finale, virtuosic and fiercely single-minded focus, this sonata presents a variegated and thoroughly accurate portrait of the composer’s creativity as he inhabited his mature years. O’Riley and Putnam were up to the work’s every challenge, and thus aptly closed an extremely rewarding concert in Concord.

The CCMS’s next concert on January 15th at 3:00 offers the opportunity to hear the BSO’s new first-chair harpist Jessica Zhou in music by André Previn, Camille Saint-Saëns, and John Williams.    

John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 32 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 32 years.

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