CLASSICAL MUSIC

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Adam Neiman

Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" clearly holds no terrors for Adam Neiman. In a Washington Performing Arts Society recital Saturday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, the pianist attacked this punishing score with admirable gusto. He consistently drew out color, rendered the thorniest passages with clarity and granitelike power and honored the programmatic aspects of the writing. There were some moments (an over-hastiness in the opening "Promenade," an improbably jaunty "Bydlo") where pianistic effect trumped storytelling sense. But overall, the music's pictorial elements emerged with vivid success.

If Neiman had an Achilles' heel during the program, it was his unwillingness to play softly. With phrasing of such scrupulous technical finish on display, it was curious that only a handful of measures dipped below mezzo-forte. The result was a certain unyielding quality to some of his musicmaking. Rachmaninoff's brooding Etude Tableau, Op. 39, No. 2, and Ravel's delicately neoclassical Sonatine, emerged as rather more extroverted works than usual in Neiman's boldly etched readings. And his virtuosic performance of Ravel's "Jeux d'Eau" didn't evoke splashing water so much as draw attention to some brilliant piano writing inspired by the splashing of water.

Bach's English Suite No. 2, which opened the recital, was metrical enough to set your watch to. But even if more light and shade might have been desired, Neiman's playing was so rigorous and crystalline that one could only marvel at it.

-- Joe Banno

Artis Quartet Vienna

Some claim that wine tasting is about more than appreciating flavors and aromas but rather, in each sip, finding something of the so-called terroir -- the characteristics given by the geography where the wine was made. Listening to the Artis Quartet Vienna at the Kennedy Center on Friday evening made one wonder whether something similar might go for string quartets. Not only was there much to appreciate in the suave musicmaking, but the transporting concert -- a presentation of the Washington Performing Arts Society -- said a great deal about the group's Austrian home base.

For one thing, ghosts roam the Vienna streets and the town remains besotted with its past musical masters. The Artis Quartet carried scores of its most prominent residents, Mozart's String Quartet No. 14 in G (the first in the set of six dedicated to Haydn), Beethoven's beloved "Harp" Quartet and Brahms's haunting and lyrical A Minor Quartet, the second of three essays in the form. Oh, if only there were more time for some Schubert or perhaps Haydn himself. Too bad that Gustav Mahler never completed any string quartets, for they would surely have been program candidates.

Vienna is nothing if not refined and polished, and such were the hallmarks of the Artis Quartet's playing. Here was a sound far from the revved-up, weighty and eccentrically detailed style increasingly popular among some younger American quartets. In the formal elegance of Mozart, the fluent expression of Beethoven and the tight musical arguments of Brahms, the Artis sound was cut straight from the cloth of the tailored and blended European quartet tradition. And maybe Artis's graceful phrasing and keen awareness of structure were musical equivalents of Vienna's ornate architecture and imperial atmosphere.

-- Daniel Ginsberg


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