Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Three “Close Neighbors” in the Nineteenth Century Get Little Respect from Robin Carmichael

Pianist Robin Carmichael prepared what could have been a fascinating program for her Noontime Concerts recital this afternoon at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. Her program was structured around three composers born within three years of each other: Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809), Frédéric Chopin (March 1, 1810), and Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811). Just as interesting was that two of them died at an early age within two years of each other: Mendelssohn (November 4, 1847), and Chopin (October 17, 1849). By dates alone they were part of a shared Weltanschauung; but, at the same time, each had is own unmistakably individual approach to making music. To make the historical proximity all the more interesting, the only Liszt selection, the third of the “Liebestraum” compositions and the only one written originally for solo piano, was composed, like the other two, in 1850, shortly after the death of Chopin, whom he had befriended.

Sadly, neither similarities nor differences were much in evidence in Carmichael’s performances. To the contrary it often seemed as if she never got beyond the marks on paper to the many different approaches to expressiveness that made the first half of the nineteenth century such an interesting period in music history. For example, she never seemed to “get” that the rondo theme of Mendelssohn’s Opus 14 “Rondo Capriccioso” was more of a scherzo than the second of the three Opus 16 pieces, which he called “Fantasies or Caprices,” that second piece being labeled “Scherzo” but lacking the usual 6/8 meter. On the other hand the second movement of Chopin’s Opus 58 (third) sonata in B minor had both the label and surface structure of a scherzo; but Carmichael never seemed to capture the “deep structure” that made that movement sound like a scherzo.

In other words Carmichael seemed more attuned to the letter of the text (which, to be fair, she tended to command with a solid sense of technique) than to the spirit. This was also evident in her two other Chopin selections, both of which were waltzes to which the composer assigned the title “Grande Valse Brillante,” the Opus 18 in E-flat major and the second (in A minor) of the three Opus 34 waltzes. These waltzes are so different that it is difficult to ascertain why they were both given the “brillante” adjective … at least until the listener (hopefully with the aid of the performer) starts to unpack how each waltz has its own characteristic way of embellishing the underlying theme. Unfortunately, Carmichael could barely express that theme as a waltz in the first place, which meant that, due to an erratic and mannered approach to rhythm, the very sense of both waltz and embellishment were undermined in both pieces.

It used to be that Noontime Concerts provided one of the best ways to get to know the recital repertoire without a price of admission. As was evident last month, this can still be the case from time to time. However, over the broader view of the current year, the signs seem to be that the misses are outnumbering the hits; and today made for yet another tally in the former column.