The Alexander & Buono Foundation presents Thomas Nickell and Orchestra of the Swan in Review

The Alexander & Buono Foundation presents Thomas Nickell and Orchestra of the Swan in Review

The Alexander & Buono Foundation presents Thomas Nickell and Orchestra of the Swan
Thomas Nickell, piano
Orchestra of the Swan
David Curtis, conductor
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
February 26, 2017


The collaboration of pianist Thomas Nickell and the Orchestra of the Swan, under conductor David Curtis, was a decidedly unorthodox and mostly refreshing change from the quotidian standard of current concert performances. In essence, this was an introduction to two entities, soloist and ensemble, who met at the juncture of two concerti, a standard from the repertory, and a fairly recent work by the English composer David Matthews.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K. 414/385p proved to be a savvy choice for an opener, as it allowed us to view the strengths of all the performers in a familiar, beloved work. Both the pianist and orchestra solved the acoustical challenges of the room and of the instrument to produce an overall warm, yet precise sound. Mr. Nickell is a composer as well, and his approach to the piano bespeaks a keen ear for harmony and structure. In much of this performance he chose to stay inside the piece, blending rather than competing with the strings. It worked like a charm. Perhaps in a nod to period practice, his cadenzas had a rhythmically flexible, somewhat improvisatory nature. Though not always entirely accurate, they were intelligent and thoughtful. For their part, the Swan paid close attention to nuances of phrasing and dynamic, providing beautiful and affectionate accompaniment for the soloist.

David Matthews’ Piano Concerto, op. 111 (2010), a terrific work in four movements, was the centerpiece of the program after intermission. The composer’s biography mentions Benjamin Britten as an influence, and this concerto was indeed reminiscent, in the best possible way, of the great English composer. While maintaining a strong, original voice, Mr. Matthews uses simple, lyrical melodies and folk dance rhythms to frame the individual movements of this work. His string writing, assured and inventive, was handled quite nicely by the Swan players, particularly the passage in harmonics at the close of the first movement. Mr. Nickell was again both partner and protagonist, showing a clear understanding and delight in this work.

As a bonus for Sunday’s audience the Orchestra of the Swan took their own solo turn in an impressive reading of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10. Their conductor, David Curtis, prefaced the performance with an impromptu address in which he declared the orchestra’s love of New York City and of the piece they were about to play. No declaration was needed. The orchestra’s adherence to high standards and joy in playing was already abundantly apparent, and it was even more so apparent in the Britten. Despite the unforgiving acoustic in Weill Hall, where every lapse in intonation and ensemble stands out, the players succeeded in delivering a vibrant and richly colored set of variations, highlighted by a gossamer Romance and a thrilling, gutsy Aria Italiana. I must also mention the excellent solo contributions of both concertmaster and principal viola here, and in general throughout the concert.

Apart from the three orchestral selections, the remainder of the program featured Mr. Nickell in solo works by Messiaen, Cowell, Liszt, and himself. Of these, the four Messiaen preludes fit the pianist’s temperament like a glove. Messiaen’s explorations in harmony, color, and the spaces between music were beautifully evoked. His liberal use of both the sustain and una corda pedals was most effective here, and in the Cowell, a piece that is more difficult to bring off than it seems. Mr. Nickell’s own composition, entitled Sympathy, followed the compositional path of Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, and Toru Takemitsu. In a constricted range of dynamics from mezzo piano down to pianissimo and lower, silence played as large a part as sound. Again, Mr. Nickell’s radical approach to pedaling created some truly striking effects.

While the twentieth century piano works benefited from Mr. Nickell’s conceptualization, I feel the Liszt transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde was a misfire. The pianist’s self-effacing qualities were a handicap here, as he was frequently building up steam only to shift back into low gear. A more rhythmically propulsive and emboldened reading would have boosted it to another level. The only other concern regarding this program had nothing to do with the performances, but with the structure of the program, which was somewhat imbalanced, an impediment to an otherwise thoroughly professional and artistic venture.

Musicians such as Thomas Nickell and the Orchestra of the Swan, who place integrity and enjoyment above all else, are a rarity and a pleasure to encounter. I hope to hear them again soon.



Karolina Jaroszewska in Review

Karolina Jaroszewska in Review

Karolina Jaroszewska – Cello
Julia Samojło – Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 11, 2015


A warm-hearted spirit of generosity pervaded the atmosphere of a very accomplished performance given by cellist Karolina Jaroszewska and pianist Julia Samojło recently at Weil Recital Hall. Ms. Jaroszewska is an intuitive musician, with a big boned, extroverted and plush sound at her disposal. The Chopin Polonaise brillante in C Major, Op. 3, has these same qualities in spades, so it was a savvy vehicle for the talents of both cellist and pianist. The duo chose to perform the Leonard Rose edition, based on Emanuel Feuermann’s arrangement, which alters the subsidiary nature of the cello part, to say the least.   Ms. Samojło tossed off the difficult opening passagework with playful ease and lightness of execution. Indeed, her playing throughout the polonaise was indicative of an understanding of the composer which is rarely seen these days. Ms. Jaroszewsk, for her part, used a wide vibrato to achieve a deeply expressive singing tone. Her security in technical matters was abundantly evident, especially when called upon to play in the more alpine regions of the instrument, which were impressively accurate in this rendition. I don’t think I would be incorrect in saying that both these artists, through their training in Poland, have absorbed a connection, handed down through generations, to the particular spirit and style of Frédéric Chopin.

In an unannounced reversal of program order, Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata for Solo Cello, Op. 28, was placed immediately after the Chopin. This proved to be a wise decision, as it allowed Ms. Jaroszewska to expand into the full scope of her interpretive range. Her phrasing and melodic shaping of this sonata were beautifully judged, most especially in the first and third movements. In the concluding Finale Con Brio, she displayed a subtle calibration of dynamics and several different qualities of pizzicato to great musical effect.

A selection of Rachmaninoff songs, arranged by the cellist, were balanced nicely in terms of mood and tessitura (soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass). Ms. Jaroszewska, when operating in soprano territory, played rhapsodically, passionately, in a manner reminiscent of a bygone era. It was Ms. Samojło, however, who made an even greater impression in many moments of austere beauty, her tone exquisite at the close “Like Blossom Dew-Freshen’d To Gladness” and the floating, Debussian quality she brought to “The Little Island”.

Krzysztof Penderecki’s second composition for solo cello, entitled Per Slava, is dedicated to the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. It is basically a series of manipulations based on the half tone intervals used to form the name BACH (B-flat, A, C, B) . This would seem to be an artificial construct, yet it is a rich and intensely affecting work. Ms. Jaroszewska gave a terrific performance, committed and musically cogent.

An important recital should end with an important piece, and the Cesar Franck A Major Sonata unquestionably falls into this category. I can’t say that I am completely without reservations concerning the transcription for cello. Much of it works quite well, but in the places where it is awkward, it’s awkward in a disappointing way. Having said that, this duo brought a great deal of energy and panache to their interpretation and they managed some smooth transitions within movements remarkably well. This was a reading with more ardor than color, painted in big, bold strokes. The final movement got off to a shaky start, but they recovered beautifully and triumphantly.

With a snappy, witty encore by Piazzola, the evening came to a close and the grateful audience thanked these gracious performers. I’m partial to musicians like Ms. Jaroszewska and Ms. Samojło. They have done their homework, but in the concert, they plunge in and take risks, and we are better for it.

Victor Paukštelis in Review

Victor Paukštelis in Review

Victor Paukštelis, Piano
Presented by the Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis Foundation
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
September 27, 2015

A professional, balanced, and innovatively designed program should not be an anomaly in today’s concert world, yet it is. That is why the Lithuanian pianist Victor Paukštelis’ recent recital at Weill Recital Hall was such a refreshing and satisfying alternative to current practice, both in planning and execution.

In matters of interpretation, Mr. Paukštelis’ rather direct, uncluttered approach served as a perfect conduit for the majority of the music he chose. His greatest strengths are a natural, impeccable sense of rhythm, and a finely delineated dynamic range. His technical skills are honest and solid, never disproportionate to the music at hand, but capable of generating real heat when called for.

This was an evening of miniatures surrounding two larger showpieces, the Chopin Scherzo No. 1, Op. 30 and the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S. 514. The program, blessedly without intermission, had internal logic and momentum. Works by two of the Baroque era’s most inventive keyboard composers, Domenico Scarlatti and Jean-Philippe Rameau, formed the musical and spiritual center of the concert. Scarlatti’s Sonatas, always welcome but infrequently chosen, were the pianist’s calling card. Three of these single movement gems were played consecutively, almost without pause, but with definition and expression. Mr. Paukštelis used both the sustain and soft pedals sparingly and intelligently. Scarlatti was a composer of great rhythmic propulsion and clarity, and unusual harmonic invention, and this was evident in these interpretations. When I hear Scarlatti played like this, I feel once more that he is a vastly underrated composer. Rameau, like Scarlatti, pushed the technical and interpretive boundaries of the harpsichord. In this concert, the pianist chose Rameau works which were more obviously programmatic, such as La Poule, and virtuosic showpieces like Les Tourbillons and Les Sauvages. This is Mr. Paukštelis’ métier, and he dispatched them brilliantly. His particular approach to the modern concert grand suggests that it would be great fun to hear his Rameau and Scarlatti on the instrument for which they were written.

The outward simplicity of Schumann’s Kinderszenen masks a wealth of interpretive detail. This pianist’s reading adhered faithfully to the printed tempi and dynamic markings, which are often contrary to one’s expectations. His approach revealed more spontaneity and fantasy than I normally associate with this cycle, especially in Fürchtenmachen and Bittendes Kind. The two most elegiac pieces, Träumerei and Der Dichter Spricht, were lean and restrained, and all the more affecting for it.

Though I admire greatly the architecture of Mr. Paukštelis’ programming, and the way in which he created relationships between music of different historical periods, I did feel that his Debussy Préludes were not given enough breathing room, sandwiched as they were between Schumann and Chopin. Canope (#10) and Feu D’Artifices (#12) from Book II were well played, but lacking the wider color palette that would have made them more vivid. These pieces are from a distinctly different sound world. Both the audience and the pianist could have used more time to let the ear rest in order to hear them freshly.

One of the great pleasures of this concert was hearing Mr. Paukštelis solve the mysteries of Weill Hall’s piano, and its acoustics. In more lyrical passages, he was able to produce a beautiful, velvety tone, notable especially in the middle section of the Chopin Scherzo, and in the calm before the storm at the finish of the Liszt Mephisto Waltz. But he when he was called upon to muster the pyrotechnics required in both those works, he never forced the sound. The ending of the Liszt was truly a remarkable display of controlled abandon.

In addition to being a gifted musician, Victor Paukštelis is also a painter of considerable talent and renown. I have seen his paintings, and they confirm my impression of him as a highly individual artist with a very clear vision. I look forward to hearing him again soon.

Pianist Carlo Grante in Review

Pianist Carlo Grante in Review

Carlo Grante, Pianist
Masters of High Romanticism, Program III: Johannes Brahms
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
February 10, 2015


The sheer bravery of structuring a recital devoted wholly to Brahms and his many themes and variations was enough to earn my respect for Carlo Grante even before he sat down at the Bösendorfer piano. His detailed and cogent program notes revealed a musician of intellect, erudition, and passion for the composer and the compositional process. His playing, borne of courage and intelligence, supported my initial impressions, though the execution of his ideas was not consistently polished.

What is immediately apparent from Mr. Grante’s playing is his facility in surmounting every type of pianistic challenge. His technique is a big one, characterized by a massive sound and an unusually extreme dynamic spectrum. For the most part, though not always, this worked to his advantage. It may have been due to the acoustics of Alice Tully Hall, or simply a misjudgment in pedaling, but much of the left hand bass figuration in forte and fortissimo passages did not always read cleanly- but that is a small matter in the context of a program marked by such high ambition.

Brahms’s Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op. 21, No. 2, though it contains the least permutations of the four works on this program, is still dense with invention in its comparatively short span. Mr. Grante’s performance of this early work proved to be a template for the rest of the evening. The theme was stated briskly and forcefully, and the variations seemed almost freely improvised, as if an incidental detail of one provided the impetus for the next. Without so much as a brief departure from the stage, the pianist then launched into both books of the Paganini Variations, Op. 35. By this point in the recital, I was convinced of his enormous strengths and puzzling inconsistencies. Some variations, such as the third and fourth of Book I, and the tender waltz variation of Book II, were voiced and balanced exquisitely. Others were dispatched with less care, both rhythmically and coloristically. His strongest playing came in the finale of the second book, driven by a powerful left hand, and brilliant pacing.

With the amount of material to memorize in this daunting survey, it is no surprise that the pianist chose to play both the Variations on a Theme of Schumann in F-sharp minor, Op. 9, and Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24, using the score. Oddly though, the presence of the printed page did not always allow Mr. Grante the sense of security he may have anticipated. In fact, the more difficult passages (which require much practice) were often more confidently rendered than the slower, lyrical music, which seemed tentatively played as if it were truly being read.

Of all the works in this concert, the Schumann Variations, because of their fragility and quirkiness, require the most care. This care was evident in Mr. Grante’s rendering of the theme, with its woodwind chorale voicing, and also in two pristine variations, the fourth and fifth, in which dynamics and tone were perfectly calibrated. Elsewhere in this piece, and in the Handel Variations, which followed, there were frequent miscalculations in attack and pedaling. Forte passages often sounded forced, while softer music lacked depth and solidity. Despite all this, the pianist ended the evening strongly, delivering the Handel fugue with remarkable clarity and aplomb.

Mr. Grante is an artist of abundant gifts. In his effort to share with the audience his knowledge and affection for this music, he set goals that were unattainable in one concert. I look forward to hearing him under better circumstances in future recitals.

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Bluegrass & Gray: Sounds of Americana in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Bluegrass & Gray: Sounds of Americana in Review

Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Bluegrass & Gray: Sounds of Americana
Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, Distinguished Concerts Singers International 
Jefferson Johnson, DCINY Debut Conductor;  Michael Adelson, Guest Conductor
Carol Barnett, Composer-in-Residence; John Purifoy, Composer-in-Residence
Special Guest: Dailey & Vincent
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 8, 2014


I may have been the only New Yorker in a sea of warm and appreciative Southerners for the presentation by Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) of Bluegrass and Gray: Sounds of Americana, an unconventional program of choral and bluegrass music on the main stage of Carnegie Hall.  While it is not unusual for a wide variety of ensembles to appear at Stern Auditorium, this performance was an odd mixture of styles, genres, and levels of professionalism.

The concert consisted of three parts, of which the second, a tour de force by the bluegrass band Dailey and Vincent, was the joyous highlight. I am not an aficionado of bluegrass music, but the level of technique and musicality shown by these players rivals that of the most celebrated groups in any branch of entertainment.  It took a few tunes to adjust the balance of amplification, and when the band was playing at full volume, the lyrics of the songs were unintelligible.  The instrumental solos, however, were tight and clean, even at the most bracing speed.  At the core of the group is a quartet of very fine singers, anchored by a rock solid bass (Christian Davis) and a tenor who can both float and belt,
Jamie Dailey.  All of the players, without exception, were impressive, but I must single out Darrin Vincent and Jeff Parker for their ease of execution and spontaneity.

Framing the Dailey and Vincent set were two choral works featuring choirs from Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, New York, Tennessee, and Washington:  John Purifoy’s The Chronicles of Blue and Gray and Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass.  A work with serious intentions, The Chronicles of Blue and Gray had moments of simple, unaffected beauty.  The text was assembled from writings of the Civil War era – popular songs, letters, speeches, and poetry, highlighting the anguish caused by the violent rift between North and South.  The speeches of Abraham Lincoln and the heartbreaking letters of soldiers about to die are difficult to improve upon by setting them to music.  Mr. Purifoy chose the smartest path- largely staying out of the way of his libretto.  His writing is idiomatic and generous, especially in the long, beautifully sung duet for Caitlin Hawkins and Travis Hazelwood.  In the end, though, I felt that the work could have used more invention and daring on the part of the composer.  Distant trumpets, lonely field drums, and open harmonies are overly familiar and specific aural images for war.  They lose their effectiveness, though, with repetition.

The finale of the program, The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, smartly retained the services of Dailey and Vincent as both backup band and soloists.  Ms. Barnett provided a well-crafted, challenging composition for both chorus and guest artists.  She has a light touch with difficult music, and the combined choruses, for the most part, rose to the occasion.  The only miscalculation was the disparity between the highly amplified sound of the bluegrass ensemble and the more natural acoustic of the voices, which dampened the effect of even their most compelling passages.

Both choral works benefited from the clear and precise direction of the conductors Michael Adelson and Jefferson Johnson.  Mr. Adelson, in particular, was impressive in his control of detail and phrasing.   The very fine orchestra, credited simply as the Distinguished Concerts Orchestra, deserved to be listed in full for their excellent contributions to the program. The expertise of their playing, as of Dailey and Vincent, elevated the entire afternoon to a level worthy of Carnegie Hall.

Suzanna Klintcharova: La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #1:  CD in Review

Suzanna Klintcharova: La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #1: CD in Review

Suzanna Klintcharova: La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #1
Suzanna Klintcharova, harp
VMS Zappel Music: VMS 231


The first of Suzanna Klintcharova’s trio of discs, La Belle Époque de la Harpe, is devoted exclusively to solo compositions for the harp by French composers, from the end of the 19th century through the first decades of the 20th.  It is a twofold revelation to hear this intelligent artist at work, and to encounter the wealth of delights this specific repertoire offers.

The selections presented in this compilation cover a variety of compositional styles, chosen from a relatively short historical period. In them one can almost trace the development of both French music and of harp technique in this era.  The Gallic fascination with Spanish rhythm, the use of ancient modes, and an adherence to triple meter are woven throughout these diverse works.

Ms. Klintcharova chose two giants of French music, Gabriel Fauré and Camille Saint-Saëns, to initiate this collection.  Fauré’s voice is endearingly familiar, yet what makes his Impromptu, Op. 86, distinctive are the extreme contrasts in his writing.  He exploits the full range of the instrument, ventures slightly off- center harmonically, and alternates between passages of great elegance and ones of stark drama.  By comparison, Saint-Saëns’s Fantasie, Op. 95, is attractive, but tamer in overall scope.  He was a gifted melodist, and in this piece there is a potpourri of beautiful tunes, from salon waltzes to troubadour chansons.  Ms. Klintcharova’s keen attention to voicing and articulation are a great asset in both works.  To round out the first part of this set, the harpist offers a charming interpretation of Gabriel Pierné’s Impromptu Caprice, Op. 9 ter, complete with musicalized birdcalls and a snappy bolero.  This would make a terrific recital encore – neat and accessible with a strong bravura finish.

With Albert Roussel’s Impromptu, Op. 21, written for the great harpist Lily Laskine, the artist takes us further along the path into modernist territory.  Roussel’s language is more dissonant and rhythmically driven, yet still maintains the hallmarks of French writing – modal melodies, Impressionistic harmonies, feathery glissandi.  Again, the harpist’s pristine technique and infallible sense of time are well suited to Roussel’s writing.  André Caplet’s Deux Divertissements, one in the French style and one in Spanish, reinforce my impression that Caplet is an underrated composer.   Based on this performance, and the one of his Conte Fantastique in the second CD of this set, Ms. Klintcharova is making a great case for his renewed popularity.    Caplet’s eccentric subtitles (i.e. ”with a graceful curve and well draped”) are worthy of Erik Satie.  His coloristic effects, including mordant metallic chords and an impressively accurate imitation of guitar strumming, are rendered perfectly by the harpist.

Ms. Klintcharova, as much an historian as an artist, scores a coup with the inclusion of Marcel Tournier’s less well-known Sonatine No. 2, Op. 45.  Tournier, a prolific performer, composer and educator, expands upon the traditions of French harp writing with fascinating results.  The Sonatine calls for a player with great facility and imagination, as it ranges from the most delicate, exotic dances, to full-blown Romanticism and exacting passagework.  Ms. Klintcharova has the stamina and talent to pull all this off.  It would be difficult to find a better introduction to the “Belle Époque” than the one provided here in this very satisfying recording.  I look forward to hearing more of Suzanna Klintcharova’s work in future ventures.

Suzanna Klintcharova: La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #2 and 3: CD in Review

Suzanna Klintcharova: La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #2 and 3
Suzanna Klintcharova, harp; Sofia Soloists Chamber Orchestra
VMS Zappel Music: VMS 241

In her recently released CD set La Belle Époque de la Harpe, Volume #2 and 3, the fine harpist Suzanna Klintcharova features four French composers.  They are the acknowledged masters, Debussy and Ravel, André Caplet, the brilliant orchestrator of several of Debussy’s works, and a venturesome creator in his own right, and Albert Roussel, renowned composer and teacher of Edgard Varèse and Bohuslav Martinů.

Conte Fantastique, a musical realization of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is a vivid representation of Caplet’s gifts.  Both the harp and string writing employ non-traditional techniques and a harmonic language that projects further into the twentieth century.  Ms. Klintcharova’s technical facility in this, as in everything, is beyond reproach.  Her rhythm is infallible, and her tone is clean and resonant. In addition, the stringent demands made on the strings are handled quite well, which is no mean feat.

Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro and Debussy’s Danses Sacrée et Profane are two cornerstones of the French repertory and both are given excellent treatment here by Ms. Klintcharova and the Sofia Soloists Chamber Orchestra.  While both works contain extended solo passages and some meaty challenges for the harp, the Ravel is more intricate and interwoven amongst the players, while the Debussy, by its nature, is a more blended, harmonious composition.  Though I found the interpretation in the Ravel somewhat on the conservative side, the playing was distinctive, most especially from the flutist Gueorgui  Spassov. Ms. Klintcharova, a generous and intelligent collaborator, chooses her partners well.

These impressions of unity in musicality and expression amongst the players were only strengthened in the final disc of the recording.  In Debussy’s Sonata No.2 for Flute, Viola, and Harp, I was particularly impressed by the violist Ognyan Konstantinov, whose beautiful tone quality and intonation were a pleasure to hear.  Both Ms. Klintcharova and flutist Andrash Adorjan an employed a wide color palette to produce some magical effects. The players’ approach did not work quite so well, however, in Carlos Salzedo’s arrangement of the Ravel Sonatine for Piano, renamed Sonatine en Trio, for flute, cello and harp.  This may be attributable to the inherent difficulties of transferring piano literature to chamber music.  I missed the pristine delicacy of the original, and found that in some passages, choices in articulation and dynamic did not reflect the spirit of piano version.  In general, it suffered from over interpretation.

The finale of the third disc, Roussel’s Sérénade for Flute, String Trio and Harp, Op. 30, was a revelation, and a rollicking finish to this recording.  By far the most modernistic composition of the group, it has a rhythmic drive and metric complexity that proved exhilarating.  Quoting freely from French folk song, and incorporating the flavor of early jazz, this chamber work occupies an unusual niche in the French repertory.  Once again, Ms. Klintcharova and her partners were at the top of their game.  This CD set is a consistently rewarding addition to the catalogue of French harp music.


Scott Cuellar, Pianist in Review

 Scott Cuellar, pianist
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 9, 2013
Scott Cuellar, pianist

Scott Cuellar, pianist

The pianist Scott Cuellar’s recent recital at Weill Recital Hall was a model of excellent programming and execution.  His manner at the piano is clean, direct and confident.  To these admirable qualities, he adds the ability to illuminate both the external structure and the emotional core of the works he plays.

The two sisters, Katharina and Marianna von Auenbrugger, to whom Haydn dedicated his Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI: 20, were held in high regard by the composer, and as a result, this significant work exploits all the tools of both artist and technician.  The overtly dramatic outer movements frame an elegant, almost Handelian Andante.  Mr. Cuellar treated the sonata as a mini-opera, with long, arching lines and a narrative thrust.  All the elegant and expressive trills and scale passages of the central movement were interpreted in this framework, as a soprano would spin an aria.

Nearly the entire recital was presented without a break, allowing the audience to make connections and see patterns in Mr. Cuellar’s deft programming.  Fauré’s Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, op. 104, No.1, one of the last by this composer, is a thoroughly modern work, particularly in its harmonic language.  Like the Haydn, however, it too is laced with anguish and intensity of emotion.  The pianist used a big-boned sound that was orchestral in its depth and coloration.  Then with the briefest of pauses, Scriabin’s 9th Sonata began, linking that composer to Fauré both chronologically and developmentally.  Although Scriabin did not choose this sonata’s subtitle (Black Mass), the music is surely a supreme evocation of darkness and turmoil, as if inspired by Macbeth’s three witches.  Mr. Cuellar amplified his dynamic range further, employing a rich, powerful bass register, with flashes of treble brilliance His pacing and clarity throughout made the wrenching climax even more effective.

It is fitting that the recital should have ended with Schumann’s great programmatic work, Kreisleriana.  In its eight movements, it explores a range of emotional states and musical styles.  In this finale to the evening, Mr. Cuellar was at his best, virtuosic in scope and expression, like a great man of the theater.  His very specific dynamic palette, combined with sensitive tonal shading and a talent for musical mimicry, brought all of Schumann’s characterizations to vivid realization.

Mr. Cuellar has a sharp intellect and the skills to flesh out his ideas.  This was a terrific recital, thoroughly enjoyable on a visceral level, and a very impressive introduction to this young pianist.

Narek Arutyunian clarinetist in Review

Narek Arutyunian clarinetist in Review
Steven Beck, piano
Merkin Concert Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
December 13, 2011

Narek Arutyunian, Clarinetist

Narek Arutyunian, Clarinetist; Photo Credit: Christian Steiner

Music is a form of communication, transference of ideas from the player to the audience.  This would seem to be the motivation behind any performance, and yet, many performances fall short of this goal for a myriad of reasons.  Narek Arutyunian, 19 year old clarinetist, and a winner of the 2010 Young Concert Artists International Audition, is first and foremost a storyteller, in the tradition of the best folk artists.  He brings his considerable talent, facility, and appreciation of his heritage to refine this tradition into art.

Mr. Arutyunian’s most notable strengths are his big, well supported tone and flair for the dramatic gesture.  He was at his best in repertoire that drew upon his natural affinity for specific genres.  In the first movement of the Poulenc Sonata for clarinet and piano, his interpretation had, as in much of Poulenc’s music, a schizophrenic nature to it, sounding alternately suave and unhinged.  The following Romanza ventured beyond Poulenc’s marking of “Tres Calme” into a wrenching and painful lament.  Only in the concluding “Allegro con Fuoco”, however, did the clarinetist’s distinctive bright and polished sound find a perfect fit for this glittering concoction.

Each half of the recital contained a work that exploited popular genres, either to develop a theme (Jean Francaix’s Tema con Variazione) or to evoke the flavor of another culture (Paul Schoenfield’s Four Souvenirs). Mr. Arutyunian dispatched both these compositions with great humor, musicality, and a jazz artist’s sense of rhythm.  In the Francaix, his phrasing on the backbeat made both the lopsided Moderato and the quirkily accented grace note waltz come to life.  Just as remarkably, he employed a singer’s phrasing in the Gershwinesque Larghetto and a pristine white tone in the Adagio to great effect.  Even more impressive was the Schoenfield, in which he showed a complete mastery of each of the four miniatures, most especially in the melancholy Tango, a cousin to the Depression era song, “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?”

Joseph Horovitz’ Sonatina is a well crafted, idiomatic piece of writing for the clarinet, but unmistakably of its time, polite and superficial.  Both this and the Sonata by Edison Denisov filled niches on the program, one for its lightness, the other for its unconventionality.  That said, Mr. Arutyunian made strong cases for each.  Only in von Weber’s Grand Duo Concertant did I feel that the clarinetist’s extroverted and highly subjective approach didn’t really work.  The swift and sparkling passagework of the Rondo was terrific, but elsewhere his playing seemed forced both in tone and rhythm.  This is a style which requires the player to emerge from within the structure of the music.

Two truly entertaining encores brought the program to a close.  Mr. Arutyunian’s partner in this recital, the pianist Steven Beck, is simply a wonder.  He plays beautifully, with unfaltering rhythm and technique, sharp ears and keen intelligence.  Their collaboration was seamless.

Narek Arutyunian is already an accomplished and exciting player who is generous to his audience.  I look forward to hearing more from him as he continues to grow artistically.

Cheng 2 Duo in Review

Cheng 2 Duo in Review
Bryan Cheng, cello
Silvie Cheng, piano
Weill Recital Hall, New York, NY
October 16, 2011
Cheng 2 Duo

Cheng 2 Duo


The New York debut recital of Bryan and Silvie Cheng was infused with a spirit of thoughtfulness and generosity. The obvious affection between the two siblings extends beyond the familial sphere into the audience, and most importantly, into the music itself.  The differences between brother and sister, both as players and as individuals, were apparent within minutes of the first piece.  The thirteen year old cellist, Bryan Cheng, is gifted with abundant facility, innate musicality, and a sense of joy.  Although his talent needs shaping, he benefits from an experienced and exquisite partner in his sister Silvie.

The program alternated between showcases of virtuosity for the cellist, and solid, refined renditions of two sonatas from the solo piano repertory.  Their first offering, the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata, was delivered with aplomb, and a nice sense of phrasing and structure.  Here, as in later works on the program, Mr. Cheng’s left hand work was admirable, but not completely secure.  I hesitate to dwell on this because he is already playing on such a high level.  However, in a sonata such as this, passagework is so exposed, and the challenge is to make it sound pristine and effortless.  He will get there soon, but he is not quite there yet.

Throughout both the Haydn Sonata in E flat major and the Schumann Second Sonata, Ms. Cheng gave thoroughly idiomatic and polished performances.  To appreciate Haydn, one must enter into a private, eccentric world of musical expression.  The pianist brought us there with her subtle use of rubato and finely varied gradations of touch and dynamic.  In the Schumann, her playing of the jewel like second movement was especially poetic, and her pedaling at the close of the fourth movement was purely magical.  I have never heard the piano in this hall sound as round and ample.

It was a treat to hear the Paganini Variations on a Theme of Rossini, a work originally written for the violin, but adapted for cello, and played entirely on the A string.  With fleet fingers, Mr. Cheng successfully negotiated most, if not all of the Alpine passages of this very difficult work. The afternoon’s only contemporary composition was the single movement, “Bringing the Tiger Down from the Mountain II” by the Chinese-Canadian composer Alexina Louie.  In a series of highly contrasting musical gestures, Ms.  Louie explores the opposing forces of yin and yang.  After the penultimate measures dwindle into barely audible rustlings in both cello and piano, there is a terrific surprise ending, which I will not divulge here.  Let’s just say the tiger has the last word.

The Cheng 2 Duo’s grand finale was the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, a brave undertaking for any cellist.  I enjoyed hearing Mr. Cheng tackle the fierce technical challenges.  He has no fear, and when he hits the mark, it can be stunning.  This young musician has all the makings of a fine concert artist.  If he pays very close attention to how his sister makes music, he could be a great one.