Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Frankly Music: Mesmerizing Messiaen, Brilliant Britten

Breaking News: Exceptionally valuable' Stradivarius violin stolen during armed robbery. This from JS News:
"The violin, described as "exceptionally valuable," was taken around 10:20 p.m. Monday in a parking lot in the rear of Wisconsin Lutheran College on W. Wisconsin Ave. police said.
A news conference is planned with Chief Edward Flynn at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday."

Frank Almond is OK; he emailed me. The whole world knows about the Lipinski Stradivarius; it will be impossible to sell it for use in the music world. I just hope it goes undamaged.

The violin was stolen after this extraordinary concert:

The long sustained tones rose so softly from Todd Levy's clarinet that I wondered at first whether it was a ringing in my ears. No, they were real, parts of the "Abyss of Birds" solo in Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, given on Monday's Frankly Music program.

Levy raised the volume ever so gradually on one apparently endless breath. As he did, he introduced an unimaginably slow vibrato. As the pitch changed ever so slowly and slightly, Levy changed its color as well. Thus a single tone became a world of nuanced sound, the universe in the grain of sand.

Levy's partners -- violinist Frank Almond, cellist Joseph Johnson and pianist Christopher Taylor -- matched the clarinetist's deep concentration and complete command of this fantastical quartet, in both its mystical contemplation and its ecstatic outbursts.

Frank Almond
Taylor gave a soft-mallet marimba finish to the halo of chords beneath the avian clarinet in the opening "Liturgy of Crystal," muscled up on the surreal ragtime in "Dance of Fury" and put a brilliant metallic edge on the many wild melodic flights in upper reaches. Johnson brought not only great dignity and nobility to the beautiful cello melodies in "Praise to the eternity of Jesus," but also naturalness and humility, a combination essential to Messiaen.

Almond, the series artistic director, had the last word in the eighth and final movement, "Praise to the immortality of Jesus." Almond played as if releasing Messiaen's ascending line to float to heaven on its own accord. It finally evaporated at the very top of the violin range, where Almond made the Lipinski Stradivarius speak in the most moving stage whisper.

Together the four played with the most acute awareness of color and of their station within the overall picture. Their sound hung in the air as an atmosphere; to hear them was to enter that atmosphere.

Schwan Hall at Wisconsin Lutheran College played a role in this. Its acoustics allow the players to relax and not worry about pushing the sound out, which opens up resonance and allows for more dynamic nuance. Sounds take a while to decay in this hall, not to the point of echo but enough to create that sense of sound suspended and alive. That's good for all music, and especially for Messiaen.

I heard Taylor's enthralling complete performance of Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-J├ęsus at St. Paul's Episcopal Church  14 months ago. He reprised four of the 20 Monday: The relentless "Contemplation of the Cross," the riotous treble swirl of "Contemplation of the Heights," the free-floating, time-stopping clouds of chords in "Contemplation of Time" and the boogie-woogie vigor of "Contemplation of the joyful spirit." They were even more vivid and gripping at Schwan than they were at St. Paul's.

Almond and Taylor opened with Benjamin Britten's playful but highly virtuosic Suite for Violin and Piano, Opus 6. The outer movements satirize the march and waltz, respectively, and the middle movement is a gently melancholy lullaby. Crowds of bizarre little squiggles, squawks, scrapes, glissandos and rhythmically awkward single tones separate passages of running momentum in the airy, amusing march. The hesitations in the waltz would have dancers tripping over their feet, and the burly energy of the trio would make them dash to keep up. Funny stuff. The muted, sweet lullaby faded away touchingly and high in Almond's violin.

Britten was 21 when he wrote the violin suite and 58 when he composed the Suite No. 3 for cello alone. Johnson played the latter from memory and with great sensitivity for the changing moods of its nine connected movements. Britten clearly had Bach in mind for much of this suite, explicitly in a third section that sounds like a half-remembered cello prelude.

Like Bach, Britten took keen interest in developing multiple voices on an instrument made for carrying a single line. He does so most ingeniously in a dialogue between pizzicato and bowed lines that Johnson read as a heated argument. Like Bach, Britten gave his cellist an impassioned recitative, a lament, really, which Johnson played with enormous passion at the end of the work.

Britten's cello suite is at once a virtuoso showpiece and an emotional probe that runs deep under the skin. Johnson commanded both aspects and wrapped them in cello sound as gorgeous as you'll ever hear.

Next up for Frankly Music: Octet program, May 12.

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