in: Reviews

June 17, 2013

Sykes Curates BEMF Keyboard Recitals

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More than ever is the Boston Early Music Festival a cornucopia, and now with niche offerings. At the Museum of Fine Arts last Friday and employing four historical instruments from its fine collection, a recital—three recitals, actually, for harpsichord, then fortepiano, then clavichord—took place, in a well-attended all-day compendium of nominally youth-related keyboard works. “The Youthful Keyboard: Inspiration and Instruction” was curated by Boston’s own eminent early-music keyboardist (and BU professor) Peter Sykes, who also was the lead of the five performers. Some recital portions had subthemes (Beethoven and the fortepiano’s limits; pedagogy), which seemed to this listener a bit forced, or perhaps irrelevant, but no matter. The day was highly rewarding, albeit long. Let us go to the play by play.

The morning harpsichord recital opened with Sykes performing Bach, always a good thing, on the MFA’s two-manual 1736 Henry Hemsch, of ravishing and silvery tone and showy paintings, with very little of what so many object to about harpsichord sound. Sykes this day played generally in the currently mandated metronome-banning “felt rhythm” style, which such past stalwarts of steadiness as Zuzana Růžičková and Anton Heiller (not to mention Gould, Landowska, Tureck …) would hardly recognize, and the C major, C-sharp major, F-sharp minor, and G major Preludes and Fugues from WTCI sometimes traded forward motion for (arguably extraneous) drama, emphases, expressivity. The S.859 Fugue was held up to an inspecting light rather than thrown firmly our way. Fortunately Sykes made all such approach with sensitivity and strength, and his dramatic pauses and sways were everywhere loving and petit. His lurching, expressive-rhythm peers seldom do as well.

Antoine Forqueray’s Première Suite concluded Sykes’s half of the morning program. It is wild. Does Forqueray’s being a viol star (he played “like the devil,” they say) account for his grumbly, bass-oriented sonic sensibility? Maybe so, actually: online sources say this is a harpsichord transcription by his son of the viol original, although I didn’t hear Sykes mention that. Forqueray, a contemporary of Bach and all the other ~1670s–1750s crowd and a member of an influential French musical family, gave his suite movements colorful names (“La Portugaise: Marqué et d’aplomb,” etc.). These sections are binary, full of chunked dusky chords connected by walking, leading, arpeggiated lines. The last dance, “La Couperin: Noblement et marquee,” seemed to end unexpectedly, powerfully, in almost chromatic darkness. Sykes made the most of this opportunity to introduce us to the work and vice-versa. One rather cool note: Sykes employs his iPad to read his scores.

Royal Conservatory of the Hague harpsichord professor Fabio Bonizzoni is a charmer. He jumbled his presentation from what was in the printed program, so this report may have some things wrong, and he also went long. Jumping back a century earlier than the preceding musics, Frescobaldi’s first Toccata contained more of those short showy runs between homophonic cadences, but it’s a mature work of drama, engaging and with what sounded like a strange nontonical ending. A solid Aria was even more developed. The ensuing “Battle” Capriccio delighted the audience to the laugh-out-loud point, meaning at the end we did just that, owing to the music’s nonbass rumbles, marches, fanfares, attacks, flurried bunches and bunched flurries, horn and pipe calls, bass rumbles and, presumably, victory. Louis Couperin’s Passacaille showed off varying harmonically gorgeous progressions fussily embellished over the ground round, rather, rond, with a surprising minor ending. Before Froberger’s probing “Meditation on my future death” Bonizzoni spoke of adolescent despair, trying to steer thoughts back to the notional youth theme, and it did sound like gloomy noodling over punctuating bass lines. The guy in the next seat muttered “Soporific,” but I was charmed, also by Gemiani’s “Amoureusement.” Bonizzoni is a strong player, and his final piece, the young Bach Toccata in E minor S.914, rarely performed, came as a relief to these spoiled and parochial ears. Bonizzoni played this better music, or at least more-explicable music, most firmly, if with a touch of rushing in the fugue.

* * *

Witty, lanky Aussie Anthony Romaniuk was another born performer, his mid-day recital titled ‘The Limits of Sonority — Beethoven and the 5-Octave Piano.” This right next to a description of the MFA’s 1796 Broadwood, which has six octaves. Whatever. The instrument is gaudy, made for a Spanish customer and decorated with ornaments like some C&W piano almost worthy of the Liberace collection. After explaining how needlessly finger-waggy the 18-year-old Beethoven’s emphatic notations are, Romaniuk, happy banger, dove in with a neat improvisation that led right into the early Sonata in C minor, Op. 10 no. 1, written a couple years after the Broadwood was built. It’s an impetuous piece, raring to dramatize the keyboard technology achievement—a whole new world of “loudsoft” beyond what Mozart had done. Romaniuk achieved subtly shaded quietude in the Adagio molto second movement and ornery (meaning Haydn-like) attacks in the Finale Prestissimo that were head-turning. Likewise the “Eroica” Variations, in a performance so splendid and accomplished, from the early strands of the famous tune gathered and redeployed all the way to the final fugue, that I would like to hear it again, in fact own a recording. (Don’t be misled by this mediocre 2012 rendering.)

The MFA Broadwood’s top treble is thunky-plunkier than that of the later Broadwood described here, but the midrange is about as rich and forceful as a 20th-century Steinway M, and the bass was wonderfully buzzy.

The second mid-day offering, “Music for the Sufferings of Young Werther,” featured Mozart’s prematurely mature Sonata in A minor K.310 and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata in D major Op. 28, with the immensely credentialed, smartly spoken pianist Yi-heng Yang. This day she was two musicians, quite aside from the programed peculiarity of trying to reflect the 24-year-old Goethe’s maudlin tale of the Worst Case of Unrequited Love ever. Werther passages were read, twice, by Yang’s “friend Margie,” also the page-turner, in superbly weenie boy voice, full of modern teen drama. It was close to moving, but also excruciating, to hear that moonstruck lad go on so. In any case, while written only four years after the epistolary work, K.310 to my ear has nothing in common with it in affect or any other tone. From the start this sonata reaches out, right into one’s passing through life, and grips and does not let go, with the ending even more powerful than the powerful opening. It is like nothing else in Mozart, almost, and everyone duly notes its connection with the death of the composer’s mother. Goethe’s pathos and despair may be real and potent, but this sonata represents something quite other.

In the event, Yang did a poor job with it. Her Allegro maestoso was choppy and the opposite of majestic, the Andante cantabile con espessione rough-hewn at best, and the dark Presto weakly phrased and of low flow. A mess of a performance. One dreaded the Beethoven.

Which was fine, and often more. This lovely piece was treated and came off with coherence and integration, phrased fondly, with minor-key moments and rocking lefthand drumming octaves cleanly navigated, and a topflight ending page. One figured, then, that Yang’s Mozart was perhaps an anomaly. A truly impressive achievement of Yang’s was that somehow she made the Broadwood’s top octaves sound fully integral, not just plinked.

* * *

Every concertgoer, every musician of every sort, indeed every person in the audio industry really should go to a clavichord concert. In a precise and focused acoustic space like the MFA’s Remis Hall (flat surfaces, little diffusion), and with a dynamic range dropped tens of decibels below today’s norm, a clavichord recital completely reboots your hearing. Peter Sykes requested no applause, suggesting program rustling instead, a wise and indeed essential constraint.

This later-afternoon recital featured two of the museum’s clavichords. The first is a late-1500s toolbox-looking thing of fir, 4’ wide and 6” high; the second is a much fancier and more elaborate instrument from two centuries later, by Schiedmayer, with the superseded technology heading into obsolescence. The former’s sound was beautiful, the latter’s beautifuler, but both just extremely quiet: faint banjo over a table radio two rooms away.

Sykes began this third recital with selections from Diruta’s ~1610 treatise “Il Transvilano” (“The Transylvanian,” a purported dialog with said diplomat about organ technique). The Ricercare showed that elegant Renaissance contrapuntal multivoice work that so captured the learned musician Bach more than a century later, and the Toccata on the Sixth Tone with Bad Leaps amused. Moving to the Schiedmayer, Sykes played, with care and sensitivity, the F-sharp minor and A major Preludes and Fugues from WTCII, but again with some of today’s de rigueur expressive semi-lurching. Just for kicks I may ask if I can oil his metronome. He closed with absorbing, lightweight youth-oriented pedagogy from Daniel Türk (b.1750), selections from “Keyboard School” plus a sonata. For the historically minded it is always fascinating to hear what else was being written and taught and played in 1777 other than the big guns.

Speaking of pedagogy and alternative music, the long day closed smack in the middle of the 18th century with C.P.E Bach’s “Music To Educate the Musical Youth,” from 18 demos bundled into six sonatas. Eastman professor Ulrika Davidsson is another pro, a formidable keyboard artist for such soft instruments, upright of posture while supple of approach. C.P.E.’s sonatas are, she informed us, quite variously keyed and time-signatured by movement; she did not say “random.” Davidsson plowed through four of these unusually engaging and enjoyable sonatas (III–VI) with flair and confidence, polish and poise and point-making, which is much easier to write about than actually effect on a clavichord. She showed that clavichord output level is directly linked to touch and weight and force. Her coloration and dynamics had delicacy, pleading passages pled, crosshand passages excited. For my taste there were, still, overmuch expressive rhythm and pausing dramatics. But many times these instructive works rose to the level of real pieces, and you’d think they’d be taught and played more than they are. A fine end to a fine day of learning, even for us nonyoung.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

8 Comments

  1. A lively, interesting set of comments, nicely expressed, but it seems Moran was lulled into
    a dulled sensibility by the inordinate virtuosic tedium of the endless Eroica Variations, and
    thereby missed the astonishingly mature intensity of Yang’s approach to the Mozart A-minor
    sonata—itself a perfect pathway (hardly an anomaly) to her splendid rendering of the Beethoven.

    Comment by Thomas Ausa — June 17, 2013 at 10:27 pm

  2. Nope, I was sharp in anticipation of it.

    Comment by David Moran — June 17, 2013 at 10:46 pm

  3. I would like to agree with Thomas Ausa’s comment — I am most confused by this review, as Yang’s Mozart was for me a highlight of the day’s performances. I can accept that the performance did not agree with Moran’s taste; however, I believe it is near slander to suggest that her performance was “rough hewn” or “a mess”: it was polished, passionate, and stylish throughout. In response to Moran’s discussion of the work’s genesis, it is certainly true that Mozart’s mother was ill at the time of this work’s premiere, but the same could be said of the Paris symphony, premiered in the same week as the A minor sonata. What the two works do have in common is that they were both written by a 22-year old. Yes, the first movement of KV 310 is marked Allegro maestoso, but the appoggiaturas of its opening theme are deeply expressive gestures and demand a passionate response. This movement requires a subtle balancing act: to emphasize only majesty would require far too much emotional detachment. I found that Yang’s versatile handling of this movement revealed a profound understanding of this balance — the result was an entirely compelling performance.

    Comment by Dan Sedgwick — June 18, 2013 at 6:33 pm

  4. Glad you both enjoyed it so, hearing it as mature, splendid, passionate, subtle, profoundly understood, compelling, and whatnot. (I hope you do some reviewing.) It all shows how wide the world of musical listening can be.

    There’s no disputing of tastes, goes the famous phrase, and general best reviewing practice is not to respond to such plain difference of opinion. You hear it your way; ymmv, etc. All good.
    Impugning another listener, however, may, past a point, be a little different; at least the charges of dullness and incipient slander (technically libel, if it were even close to reality) seem so to me. If you don’t think K.310 sounds griefstricken, or some other emotional state, or is a different kind of response to life altogether, also fine. I stand by what I wrote, though, and in fact soft-pedaled it compared with what I fully thought of, and heard in, Yang’s performance that day of that piece. I would’ve gone off more about everything wrong, except in a long report it hardly warranted further, and negative, space.

    One of the chief problems, to my ear, was unnecessary inflection and emphasis, when it’s all already in the notes if you play it straight and move it along, also a certain lack of rhythmic strength and propulsion. Here is a much more straightforward account for which you have to ignore rather gruesome sound:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkKmFnt8th8

    And here’s genuine maestoso from Brendel:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wcj1fOe4JIQ&list=PLg6SQeezCC5SBZzSSBrKxEMOTxq-WPfaf

    Perahia is also quite good, and there are others.

    Finally, compare Yang’s labored work here with her partner (who at least keeps Yang moving forward):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kraKN1rUewU

    Whatever. Not nice to review her twice, really. The lovely Beethoven was lovelier. De gustibus.

    Comment by David Moran — June 20, 2013 at 12:55 am

  5. Although I am out of town and could not attend this very interesting harpsichord event, I got a very good sense of it from David Moran’s perceptive, forthright and eloquently written review. I am also in total agreement with his comments about the rhythmic instability and overuse of rubato that he heard in this concert, if this is indeed the way some of the performers played. Moran’s word “lurching” is well chosen.

    My response will probably come as no surprise to people who have heard me play, or read what I have written on the subject, but it bears repeating: the use of rhythmic distortion and agogic accent to attempt to create expressivity is simply an indication that the player has little interest, or ability, to use subtleties of articulation and touch to achieve this goal. I should also add—once again— that this HC (i.e., “historically correct”) and apparently universally adopted style of playing has little if any basis in historical fact. Almost every writer on the subject from the 17th and 18th centuries (and the 19th as well, for that matter) makes it a point to remind players to keep a steady time, or tactus, within which they can use subtle manipulations of time—with or without an “oiled’ metronome. The keyword here is subtle.

    I am also disappointed to hear that some of the performers in this concert, whose playing I have admired since they got out of school, have now adopted this approach when I know that they are perfectly capable of doing otherwise. But I suppose they will cry all the way to the bank.

    Comment by Mark Kroll — June 21, 2013 at 7:23 am

  6. I must say that I also disagree profoundly with much of what Moran said in his review, to the point where I have to wonder if he was even at the same concerts. I thought Sykes in particular was brilliant as always, never lurching, and one could feel in the energy of the room after Yang’s performance how deeply moved the audience was by her genuine, careful artistry. Mr. Moran, your childish response to even the mildest of criticisms from fellow music lovers reveals you to be a very small man.

    I am most incensed, however, and I think all decent people should be, by your decision to take a shot at Ms. Yang’s supposed sexuality. (Is she even gay? I do not know, and it doesn’t matter a bit, but for what possible other purpose could you ever have put quotes round your description of her page turner as a “friend”, or malign her voice as “weenie-boy”? Your editor will certainly receive some letters about this, as it is wholly unacceptable. Also, in the Internet clip you posted of her there is a vile racist comment right beneath the screen. Whatever your personal biases, Mr. Moran, I humbly remind you that music is for the listening. A review of a concert shouldn’t be a forum for you to smarmily bash those who, for whatever bigoted reasons, you simply don’t like.

    Comment by Judith Chapulis — June 22, 2013 at 10:52 am

  7. This is too funny. I was quoting Yang’s own onstage description of her lector (a rather unprofessional introduction, but that’s what she announced). Margie’s vocalization of the pathetic youth Werther seemed to me spot-on. Oh, and I did not write the “Asians” YT comment.

    Comment by David Moran — June 22, 2013 at 11:45 am

  8. I wasn’t at the concert and can’t offer an opinion on the performance of the A minor sonata, or the controversies this review has engendered (though I am shocked to discover the enormous crimes that can be discovered in a pair of quotation marks, especially when they have been carefully decontaminated by placing them around an actual quotation.) I can, however, offer my agreement with two things that David Moran says in passing. First, the programming concept is worthy of derision. The Sorrows of Young Werther was an ephemeral sensation; in its time it made both its hero’s manner of dress and his suicide fashionable. Nobody reads it anymore except for historical interest or morbid curiosity (I read it it out of a combination of the two; in my defense, I was no older than its hero at the time.) Both K310 and Op. 28 are still performed, and interest in them only deepens, because they contain unfathomable depths. Goethe’s flickering little flame does not enlighten them.

    Second, I think that the caution against unnecessary inflection and emphasis is necessary, and that “it’s all already in the notes if you play it straight and move it along” puts it well. It is particularly apposite to this work, because the necessary forward momentum can only be hampered if the performer interjects expressive asides. It is characteristic of Mozart’s most grief-stricken works – or those in which there is the broadest consensus for such an interpretation – such as the A minor sonata, the G minor string quintet, and the G minor symphony, that they possess this relentless forward drive, this urgency that will not allow the momentary rest that moments of rhythmic inflection allow. “Expressiveness” only saps this and diminishes its power.

    That said, I disagree with the choice of Brendel as an exemplar, because I think he makes exactly this mistake, in a too-deliberate attempt to convey majesty. A king doesn’t have to go out of his way to walk like a king; if he know he is a king he will walk like one. I agree that Perahia is very good, as is Goode, but both commit the unpardonable and, in this context, unfathomable crime of cutting the first-movement exposition repeat. One of the best performances is by a pianist who was uncomfortable with Mozart, Richter. And Uchida is magnificent.

    Comment by SamW — June 22, 2013 at 10:59 pm

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