Monday, May 2, 2005

Cellist David Finckel

Half a century neatly separates the three Russian cello sonatas played by David Finckel and pianist Wu Han Friday at the Library of Congress.

Sergei Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata, from 1901, is filled with grand gestures and sweeping melodies. Finding balance between the two instruments can be problematic, since the commanding piano part can easily chew up scenery. But Finckel made this a cellist's sonata. With his rich, cocoa tone, Finckel turned Rachmaninoff's luxuriant themes into arias. His graceful flight up to the pivotal high note in the Scherzo was ravishing.

To her credit, Han's piano never obscured her partner's playing. Her solos had energy and ardor, sounding as if they were lifted straight from a Rachmaninoff concerto.

Perhaps it was unwise to place Lera Auerbach's ambitious new Cello Sonata (written in 2002 for Finckel and Han) beside Sergei Prokofiev's masterful Op. 119. Their similarities invited an unflattering comparison, and the Auerbach might have impressed more in another context.

In her early thirties, Auerbach is already a celebrated poet, composer and pianist. Her sonata pushed both instruments to their limits, but Finckel and Han were undaunted. The special effects included various pluckings, strummings and grand tolling bells in the piano, in addition to a tight, whirring vibrato technique that made Finckel sound like a teakettle gone berserk.

In contrast, Prokofiev was ill and elderly when his Sonata premiered in 1950, yet it bubbles with life. He emptied the essence of his career into the piece, and Finckel and Han brought out all the smart-aleck wit, darkest fears and joyful lyricism.

Their committed performances proved that these three Russian sonatas represent distinct personalities well worth knowing.

-- Tom Huizenga

Klavier Trio Amsterdam

The Klavier Trio Amsterdam, which stepped in as a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled Instrumental Baroque Ensemble at the French Embassy on Friday, brought with it some romantic Haydn, post-impressionistic Faure and contemplative Dvorak, pieces that represented each of these composers in uncharacteristic moods. That the trio's three artists -- violinist Joan Berkhemer, cellist Nadia David and pianist Rob Mann -- favored carefully considered and understated readings added to the sense that Haydn, Faure and Dvorak might, indeed, have been in the same room when they wrote these pieces.

The dreaminess of Haydn's F-sharp Minor Trio, with its themes that seem to start in mid-flight (or, perhaps more accurately, in mid-sigh), seemed even more pensive in a performance that kept the three instruments determinedly in balance. Restraint, care and attention to detail made it easy to follow the wandering chromatics of the Faure D Minor Trio, Op. 120, and this same controlled focus gave the Adagio of the Dvorak F Minor Trio, Op. 65, a compelling sense of timelessness and peace.

All of these were artistic choices and all were easily defensible. But it is not hard to imagine the three pieces played more idiomatically, with more made of the off-the-beat entrances of Haydn's melodic lines and sharper edges in his concluding minuet, and much more piano presence in the Dvorak to give color and life to the sedate-sounding second-movement dance. This might have made for an evening of more spark and excitement.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Nathan Gunn

The sleek-looking Nathan Gunn is held up in the opera world as a singer who can take on a male role and actually appear manly. In a fine recital at the Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday evening, the American baritone showed there is a capable and understanding artist beneath this polished exterior.

Gunn gave a conscientious yet ardent account of Franz Schubert's dramatic song cycle "Die Schone Mullerin" ("The Beautiful Maid of the Mill"), which traces a story of unrequited and ultimately tragic love.

Gunn possesses an agile and concentrated voice, which allowed him to play it cool in the opening songs that introduce the romantic wanderings of a miller. In "Where to?" and "Thanksgiving to the Brook," Gunn's articulate, no-frills delivery put the fervent poems of Wilhelm Muller and Schubert's lyrical music line in high relief. Gunn smartly injected greater weight or color as necessary in the lovely "Morning Greeting" and the more yearning "Impatience."

Yet the best moments came when the story pivoted from love to betrayal. Here, Gunn negotiated greater extremes within the music, using more flexible tempos and dynamics to enrich the music's detail. Fire shot through the jealousy-laden "Huntsman," while "The Beloved Color" was the picture of sad resignation. Gunn's rich, melancholic sound flowed beautifully over the somber piano passages of Kim Pensinger Witman, who provided Gunn with clear, supportive accompaniment.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Baltimore Opera

The Baltimore Opera staged a beautifully wrought version Saturday of Jacques Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" -- an accomplishment all the more praiseworthy given a story line based on a hard-to-swallow fantasy laid out in problematic confusion.

Armed with Jules Barbier's libretto (in French with English surtitles), one drawn from tales by the German romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, Offenbach tried to merge a real world engulfed in horror-ridden fantasies. In short, the young poet Hoffmann (tenor Gerard Powers) experiences dreamlike infatuations with the mechanical doll Olympia (coloratura Valeria Esposito), the ailing singer Antonia (soprano Antonia Cifrone, unforgettable in the Act 2 trio with Madeleine Gray and Alain Fondary) and the courtesan Giulietta (mezzo Victoria Livengood).

The zany epilogue proclaims the pleasures of drink and the moral that love matters, but more important are the tears accompanying its rejection. This downer ending caps music that's slushy, for the most part, and glued together in a grand spectacle with a mob of characters, all sprawled out over three long hours.

But the opera was redeemed by a gorgeous performance at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House. Conductor Christian Badea picked this opera up and carried it along, turning soloists, chorus and orchestra into a musical whole with unflagging energy and sensitive detail. Powers gave depth and sheer lung magnitude to this taxing role, while Esposito almost stole the show with her spectacular off-the-charts coloratura and splendid dancing.

Mezzo Cynthia Jansen proved a sturdy, vibrant Muse and Nicklausse, and Livengood an impressive, resounding Giulietta. Pierre Lefebvre, Brendan Cooke, Kenneth Mattice, John Zuckerman, Edward Albert and Heather Lockard contributed much to the production's success.

Ferruccio Villagrossi's sets blended the real and unreal in subtle colors enhanced by Jeff Harris's imaginative lighting and Howard Tsvi Kaplan's haute couture costumes. The chorus and orchestra provided a strong and unfailingly accurate underpinning for the performance. The opera will be repeated Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

-- Cecelia Porter

Sitarist Gaurav Majumdar

Since Indian classical music became known in the West, some of its more adventurous stars have collaborated with rock, jazz and techno players. They've also worked with instrumentalists from related but distinct traditions, such as Persian music.

Indian performers needn't cross any geopolitical borders, however, to enter the boundary-blurring mode known as jugalbandi . Musicians from the northern (Hindustani) style can simply play with ones from the south (Carnatic), as they did Saturday evening at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple auditorium in Lanham.

Of the four musicians, the most prominent was sitarist Gaurav Majumdar, a student of Ravi Shankar, who had a high-profile gig at the Athens Olympics. Yet Majumdar didn't dominate, giving equal time to veena player Veenai Jayanthi. The veena, a Carnatic instrument, is the predecessor of the sitar, and is similar in size and form but lacks the sympathetic strings that provide the sitar's shimmering timbre. Jayanthi's playing was more deliberate than Majumdar's, and her tone deeper and earthier. As the two musicians traded short passages, however, she was no less versatile or assured.

-- Mark Jenkins

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