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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Paul Badura-Skoda

T he legendary pianist Paul Badura-Skoda celebrated his 80th birthday last month, and after a lifetime of gold-standard performances, he'd be forgiven for resting on his considerable laurels. But in a bravura performance Sunday at the National Gallery of Art's West Garden Court, Badura-Skoda seemed to shrug off the decades, playing with power, remarkable fluidity and the unerring musicianship for which he's become famous.

A last-minute change in the program disappointed some listeners, who were looking forward to hearing two works by Schubert, whom the pianist has a particular affinity for. And the opening piece, Haydn's Sonata in A-flat, was a bit of a letdown with its a wooden Adagio and a finale that melted into mush in the venue's notorious acoustics.

But Badura-Skoda quickly turned things around in Beethoven's Sonata No. 21 in C (the "Waldstein"), which he played at the gallery in 1998. It's a work of almost triumphal exuberance, and the pianist brought it off with near-total command; a riveting, even exalting performance with little apparent loss of technique or energy over the past decade. Schumann's virtuosic, wonderfully variegated "Symphonic Etudes in the Form of Variations," Op. 13, was equally impressive.

The most interesting part of the program, though, came in the elegantly brooding "Fantasy on Flamenco Rhythms," a late work by the shamefully little-heard composer Frank Martin. Written specifically for Badura-Skoda, it filters the traditional rhythms and elemental spirit of flamenco through a sophisticated and thoroughly modern mind. Badura-Skoda played it with authority -- and a kind of quiet, smoldering passion.

-- Stephen Brookes

New Zealand String Quartet

As part of an international tour, the New Zealand String Quartet performed on Sunday at the National Academy of Sciences, devoting half of the program to recent works based on the subtleties of China's musical language. In contrasting ways, both Tan Dun's "Eight Colors" and Gao Ping's "Bright Light and Cloud Shadows" resort to a vocabulary of subtly shaded instrumental timbres.

Tan is a composer well-known in the United States, especially since 2000 with the premiere of his musical score for the Oscar- and Grammy-winning film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." In "Eight Colors," Tan draws on sonorities derived from string techniques; these mimic vocal sounds characteristic in the Peking Opera and Buddhist chants: Bows and strings are enlisted to create scratching, squeaking, slapping and chirping effects that Western ears could easily expect at a country fiddlers' jamboree -- or have heard in music written by some of the West's 20th-century avant-garde composers.

A native of China and now a New Zealand resident, Gao leans in a different direction. Premiered earlier this year by the quartet, his "Bright Light and Cloud Shadows" gives a more delicate sonic impression than Tan's composition; Gao creates string sonorities from an imagined palette of pastels, painting in gently evolving textures and with tender, long-breathed brush strokes. Besides the performances of these contemporary works, which the New Zealanders managed with conviction and sophistication, the concert also included Mendelssohn's String Quartet, Op. 44, No. 1, and Schumann's Op. 41, No. 2. In both these German romantic works, intonation, clarity of texture and unanimity fell a tad short of perfection. Yet the musicians nicely revealed the symphonic magnitude of the Mendelssohn, a work alternating between poignant and lusty emotions. Compared with the Mendelssohn, the quartet fared better in the Schumann with its hints of Beethoven's enigmatic late quartets in tone, rhythmic twists and brooding outlook.

-- Cecelia Porter


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