Saturday, October 25, 2008

Music in the Flesh

Last night I was reminded (once again, as if I needed reminding) that there is no substitute for the experience of the "live" performance, whatever the current (or even improving) virtues of recording and distribution technology may be. This time the reminder came from a Senior Piano Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and involved a work I had previously known only through recordings, Sergei Prokofiev's Opus 16, his second piano concerto in G minor. This being a "student project," the soloist was able to arrange for orchestral accompaniment by fellow students (including a student conductor), although the usually lush Prokofiev string section was reduced to two first violins, two seconds, and single performers for viola, cello (the only familiar face by virtue of this week's Cello Ensemble performance), and bass.

Even with the benefit of recordings, my familiarity with this work is pretty weak; but the recording I know best puts up pretty stiff competition. It is actually my personal recording of a broadcast of a 2007 Proms concert, which I made for one of my neighbors and liked enough to make a copy for myself. (For those who are interested, the entire concert has a Torrentz page.) The pianist was Alexander Toradze, and the London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Valery Gergiev. This is the sort of team that can be really serious about its Prokofiev, not only in terms of virtuosic rhetorical flair but also down at the nuts and bolts of logic and grammar. Nevertheless, Prokofiev has written so much into this concerto that it take the immediacy of an actual performance to give full justice to all three of those trivium elements.

If this is a student who wishes to make a career out of dashing off the most challenging works in the piano repertoire, then this concerto is a good place to start; and Toradze is one of the better models out there. While he only won the Silver Medal in the Fifth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1977), I remember seeing him on Public Television, shortly after a documentary about that particular Competition, in which he played a solo piano transcription of Igor Stravinsky's "Sacre du Printemps," which may well have passed the ultimate acid test of understanding a composition in terms of its logic, grammar and rhetoric! Last night's student's performance could have done with a bit of refinement (as could the somewhat scrappy orchestral support); but he was no slouch in negotiating all of the burdens of complexity that Prokofiev piled on the back of the soloist. Watching this student negotiate the keyboard turned out to be as informative as the listening experience and may well have helped to sort out many of the grammatical priorities, which, if ignored, would have reduced the performance to a mere jumble of a whole lot of notes.

The truth is that, between all of those virtuosic excesses and his inclination for raucous orchestral sounds, Prokofiev poses a different level of challenge than one finds in Johann Sebastian Bach or Joseph Haydn (who happened to be the other two composers represented on last night's program). It is a high-wire act from which the performer can all-too-easily fall into a pit of vulgarity. However, whatever surface level weaknesses may have confronted last night's performance, there was a security in the "deep structure" that kept both soloist and orchestra from slipping off the wire; and that is quite an accomplishment for a graduating senior!

Having invoked the other composers on last night's program, it is worth saying a thing or two about their contributions to the evening. Haydn was represented by his 59th piano sonata in E flat major, listed in the Hoboken catalog as XVI/49 and completed in 1790. This makes it excellently positioned to serve as one of the inspirations for those Opus 2 piano sonatas that Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated to Haydn. It is as virtuosic for its time as the Prokofiev concerto was for the early twentieth century, and Haydn dishes out his virtuosity with an ample supply of wit that pervades the early Beethoven sonatas. However, the middle Adagio e cantabile movement reflects a deeper level of influence that we encounter at the other end of the Beethoven canon, the deliberately sustained theme that evolves through successive layers of embellishment into an entirely new genre of virtuosity in the final movements of Beethoven's Opera 109 and 111 sonatas. (Indeed, it is only through an understanding of how to sort out such embellishment that the mind behind the ear can get a handle on how Prokofiev took such embellishment to even more intimidating heights.) Thus, whether or not the strategy was intended, the Haydn sonata did much to set the ear up for confronting the complexities of the Prokofiev concerto.

Did Bach's sixth French Suite in E major (BWV 817) set the ear up for listening to the Haydn? This may be more of a stretch, particularly in the face of the rather straightforward binary form that structures its eight dance movements. What we encounter here has more to do with the interplay of a very small number (sometimes just two) of contrapuntal voices; and successful performance has to do with the clarity of that interplay. Once again this particular student would slip up on surface detail, but also again that clarity had more to do with understanding and rendering that deep structure of each movement. Thus, one might say that this beginning with Bach established a laying out of "grammatical ground rules," which then pervaded the rest of the recital, making the entire evening one of the more stimulating opportunities for those of us in the audience to refine our listening skills.

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