Franz Kafka may have been largely ignored in his own lifetime, but his novels — and the sense of dread and alienation they evoke — came to have an extraordinary impact on the 20th century mind. So it was intriguing to hear pianist Lara Downes at the Embassy of the Czech Republic on Thursday evening, playing music by Czech composers who endured the rising totalitarianism that Kafka’s writing seemed to presage — and who were either killed by it or forced into decades of exile.
Perhaps the most tragic of these was Erwin Schulhoff, who produced an astonishingly innovative body of work — including the “Suite Dansante en Jazz,” which Downes opened with — before dying in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. The six-movement suite is an earthy, slow-burning piece from 1931, bluesy at its heart but imbued with edgy, wildly colored, often brilliant ideas, and Downes gave it a fine reading — more thoughtful than sensual, maybe, but very engaging.
She followed with Andre Singer’s “Nine Parables to Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika,’ ” which alternated short passages from Kafka’s enigmatic 1914 novel with equally enigmatic and expressive musical fragments — a fascinating work from Singer (who was forced into exile in the 1930s) that seemed to capture a complex and Kafkaesque world where nothing is what it seems to be. Robert Rehak and Mary Fetzco delivered the written passages with aplomb.
Jaroslav Jezek’s lovely “Svita” (Shining) — famous for boosting Czech morale during World War II — provided a few moments of sunshine, as did five of Bohuslav Martinů’s “Etudes and Polkas.” Written in exile (where the composer spent much of his life), these brief pieces seemed to evoke both the freedom of a new world and nostalgia for the old; a poignant glimpse into the heart of the exiled composer.
The final work on the program was the biggest, but, to these ears anyway, the least satisfying. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a remarkable prodigy, and his Sonata No. 2 in E Major, Op. 2, written when he was all of 13 years old, is a remarkable accomplishment for an adolescent, technically accomplished and ambitious in every way. That said, it’s really just a noisy show-off piece, full of heroic chest-pounding and thundering charges up and down the keyboard, anchored by a Largo con Dolore that fairly wallows in adolescent woe. Downes — who admitted that Korngold was “the new love of my life” — gave the thing an impassioned performance, but it was her insights into the more complex, understated and subtle works on the program that more deeply impressed.
It’s enough of a treat to hear Jenny Lin, Lura Johnson or Audrey Andrist perform — but to have all three pianists on the same stage, as they were on Sunday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is just a spectacular abundance of talent. The three are members of the contemporary music ensemble Verge, and as part of the museum’s Steinway Series they presented an afternoon of 20th century Russian music that ranged from youthful works by Rachmaninoff and Scriabin to Igor Stravinsky’s earth-shaking piano reduction of his score to “The Rite of Spring.”
Rachmaninoff’s “Valse and Romance” for six hands, written when the composer was all of 17, is dedicated to three girls his own age — and as you might expect, it’s a charming and lyrical work, which received an affectionate reading from all six hands involved. But things got substantially more interesting in Stravinsky’s “Piano Sonata” from 1924, played by Lin. It’s a remarkable work, steeped in baroque and classical-era music but with a grin behind the counterpoint that keeps it always fresh, a little off balance, always surprising. Lin — who just released a superb recording of all Stravinsky’s piano music — turned in a sharp-edged reading full of her own distinct brand of quiet, intent ferocity.
Scriabin’s brooding little “Etude in C-sharp minor, Op 2., No. 1” is another teenaged work, and Andrist played it with poignancy and tenderness. Johnson’s riveting account of Prokofiev’s “Sonata No. 7, Op. 83,” though, really stole the show. It’s a complex, subversive work, written in 1942 after the arrest and subsequent death of a friend of the composer’s, and Johnson looked unflinchingly into its anguished depths.
The second half of the program was devoted to something of a musical footnote: the piano version of Stravinsky’s orchestral ballet “The Rite of Spring,” which was used for the dance rehearsals before the 1913 premiere. The Rite is a work of almost unparalleled orchestral color — and one of the great symphonic experiences of all time — so to hear it stripped to its bones was at first a little disconcerting, as if hearing it over the telephone. But Johnson and Andrist gave it a thundering performance, capturing the Rite’s jagged rhythms and driving, elemental power, and by the end you half expected the piano to be in pieces on the floor.
There may be few more fascinating periods in music than the turn of the 20th century, when romanticism began giving way to impressionism, expressionism and all the other “isms” of the modern world. The fine young pianist Sara Daneshpour made that period the focus of a colorful and beautifully conceived concert at the American Art Museum on Sunday afternoon, tying the romantic lyricism of Granados and Franck to the tone-painting of Ravel and the raw explosiveness of Prokofiev — and playing it all with stunning virtuosity and verve.
A D.C. native still in her 20s, Daneshpour opened the afternoon quietly with a poised, utterly clear and graceful performance of Haydn’s Sonata in F Hob. XVI:16 — a delight to the ears, like virtually everything Haydn wrote. But the Haydn was merely a prelude to Maurice Ravel’s still-astonishing suite of tone poems, “Gaspard de la nuit.”
Written in 1908, it’s a masterpiece of early expressionism, from the shimmering water effects of “Ondine” to the tolling bells and morbid brooding of “Le gibet” (“The Scaffold”) and the taut, menacing “Scarbo” — not only one of the most colorful works in the piano literature (its range of sonorities is astounding), but also one of the most difficult to play. Daneshpour brought it off flawlessly, with both the virtuosic touch she had shown in the Haydn and a rich, imaginative sense of color and dramatic pace.
Sergei Prokofiev wrote his Toccata Op. 11 just a few years after Gaspard appeared, but it’s a much different work that builds driving, repeated notes into an unstoppable powerhouse. Daneshpour turned in one of the strongest and most purposeful readings you could hope to hear, throwing herself into the work for a bravura performance. But she showed a different side of herself in the more introspective “El Amor y la Muerta: Balada” (The Ballad of Love and Death”) by Enrique Granados, the fifth in his “Goyescas” piano suite of 1911. Deeply lyrical, suffused with sorrow and longing, it’s a work whose loose, unpredictable phrasing gives it an almost improvisational feel, and Daneshpour gave it a straight-from-the-heart reading.
Two earlier works — Alexander Scriabin’s “Sonata-Fantasy No. 2” from 1898, and Cesar Franck’s much-loved “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” from 1884 — closed the program and linked it to late-19th century romanticism. The two-movement Scriabin sonata — a sort of tone poem evoking the ocean — is as impressionistic as it is romantic, and Daneshpour played it with extraordinary sensitivity and a subtle sense of color. Franck’s Bach-influenced “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” is a masterpiece if there ever was one: intellectually weighty, emotionally complex, and containing an almost monumental sense of power. Daneshpour gave it superb reading, and when called back for an encore, she played a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti with all the deft precision and clarity she had brought to the Haydn.
There may be few kinds of music as immediately likable as Baroque chamber music, which is usually heard on modern instruments. But its subtle beauties are better revealed by the delicate, soft-voiced instruments of the time, as was clear at Sunday’s Baroque Bonanza concert at the Church of the Epiphany, when two of the most gifted Baroque ensembles in the area joined forces for an afternoon of music making that captured the vitality of this music as well as its subtle nuances.
The unusual ensemble Sarabande (named for the several Sarahs who founded it) opened the concert with music for baroque oboes, baroque bassoon and percussion. These double-reed instruments have a particularly throaty and arresting sound, and in a half-hour of short works by George Frideric Handel, Jean-Baptiste Lully, André Danican Philidor and others, the Sarabande players used the rich, plaintive timbres and flavorful intonations to highly expressive effect. Alison Lowell, Meg Owens and Sarah Weiner turned in fine playing on oboe, as did Stephanie Corwin on bassoon, while Michelle Humphreys — playing tambourine and drum with a light, sensitive touch — added a feathery texture to the music that enhanced the other instruments.
Rosa Lamoreaux is one of the finest early-music sopranos to be found, and she opened the second half of the program by leading the Arcovoce ensemble in strikingly vivid readings of two chamber cantatas, Vivaldi’s “All’ombra di sospetto” and Alessandro Scarlatti’s “Correa nel seno.” The instrumentalists in this remarkable ensemble are equally strong, and Nina Falk (on baroque violin) turned in a mesmerizing account of the Sonata No. 3 in F major by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (one of the rare female composers of the time), while harpsichordist Stephen Silverman played two of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas with rare insight and grace.
Rummage around in classical music’s closets, and you’re bound to find a few treasures: works by once-famous composers who have long vanished from view. Take Louise Farrenc, for instance. This 19th-century French composer rose to prominence in the male-dominated musical establishment of her time, was promptly forgotten, and left behind some superb music, including the rarely heard “Trio for flute, cello, and piano, Op. 45,” the highlight of a fine concert by the American Chamber Players at the Kreeger Museum on Friday evening.
The concert marked the opening of the Kreeger’s annual June Chamber Festival, which for 10 years — under the imaginative direction of violist Miles Hoffman — has showcased some of the area’s best musicians in an acoustically near-perfect setting. Hoffman got a shock a couple of weeks ago when scheduled pianist Anna Stoytcheva was suddenly called out of town, but Lisa Emenheiser (well known to D.C. audiences for her work with the National Symphony Orchestra) heroically stepped in, mastering a range of new works in a matter of days. It took Emenheiser a minute or two to settle into the opening work, Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, K. 483 — a piece balanced delicately between a concerto and a string quartet — but by the middle of the Larghetto she fully owned the music and turned in thoughtful, accomplished playing all evening.
Violinist Joanna Maurer’s probing, fiercely intelligent playing (particularly in 20th-century music) has always been a high point of this festival, and she joined cellist Stephen Balderston for Bohuslav Martinu’s 1927 “Duo No. 1 for violin and cello.” Its two contrasting movements pit brooding lyricism against the propulsive rhythms of Czech folk music, and the players — sharing a clear rapport — turned in a riveting, virtuosic reading.
The four “fairy-tale pictures” of Schumann’s “Märchenbilder for Viola and Piano, Opus 113” range from robust to melancholy, and gave Hoffman a chance to display his extroverted playing. But the most intriguing — and certainly charming — work of the evening may have been Farrenc’s Trio. This 1857 work is written with a lilting, lyrical touch, and flutist Sara Stern led the ensemble in a reading steeped in romanticism and elegant drama.
The Kreeger festival continues on Tuesday and Friday, with music by Brahms, Bruch, Raimi, Mozart and others.
Linking a concert to an art exhibit can be illuminating: Find the connections between composers and painters of a particular era, and you often discover something new about both. That was the premise behind Thursday night’s concert at the Freer Gallery, when the pianist Gilles Vonsattel performed music by Western composers that would have been performed in late 19th-century Japan, when the artist Kobayashi Kiyochika was creating a series of woodblock prints now on exhibit at the Freer. The connection may have been a bit thin, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Vonsattel chose such a thoughtful and tightly knit program, so rich in internal musical references, shared themes and surprising cross-connections, that any link to Japanese art seemed almost incidental.
The Kiyochika exhibit is titled “Master of the Night,” and Vonsattel chose a suitably dark program with Beethoven at its heart. After tossing off the six Bagatelles, Op. 126, he moved into the more complex waters of the Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op 27 No. 2 — better known as the “Moonlight.” Its famous first movement has suffered no end of sappy interpretations, but Vonsattel brought out a more probing, somber, even funereal side in a performance that was often spellbinding. The second movement was oddly polite, and the final movement might have used a little more wild-eyed ferocity. But you got the sense that Vonsattel is more interested in ideas than in stormy passion, and more power to him: This is a thinking person’s pianist.
The darkness got even darker in Liszt’s wonderfully morbid “Pensee des Morts” (from Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses, S. 173). Sounding of tolling funeral bells, and so closely tied to the Beethoven sonata that it even quotes it, the work is a brooding meditation on death, and it was fascinating to hear it between the Beethoven and Olivier Messiaen’s “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell)” — a work of palpable spirituality, full of far more hope and celestial light than the title might suggest.
Schumann’s Arabeske in C, Op. 18, provided a pleasant interlude, followed by six pieces from Debussy’s two books of “Images” — chosen, perhaps, to echo the bells (“Cloches a travers les feuilles”) of the Liszt and the impressions of water (“Reflets dans l’eau”) and moonlight (“Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut”) that have long been associated with the “Moonlight” sonata. Vonsattel took a refreshingly full-blooded approach to the works, delicate and precise but without the relentless shimmer that can make Debussy seem gauzy, and he closed (extending the water theme even further) with Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este.”
Remember those idyllic days of fin-de-siècle France, when life was an endless pique-nique in a sunlit field of flowers? No? Neither do I. But on Sunday evening at the National Gallery of Art, the virtuosic harpist Emmanuel Ceysson presented a program of French music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that evoked a world of distant, shimmering beauty — a last gasp of innocence before modernism crashed the party — that dovetailed with the Gallery’s ongoing “Degas/Cassat” exhibit.
Ceysson is a rising star in the harp world, and from the opening “Impromptu-Caprice” by Gabriel Pierné, it was clear that both his technique and his musicianship are virtually flawless. The harp may seem ethereal, but it’s capable of an almost orchestral richness of sound, and the first half of the program — romantic, ultra-refined showpieces from such early harpist-composers as Albert Zabel, Alphonse Hasselmans and Henriette Renié — allowed Ceysson to display a vast arsenal of coloristic techniques.
But beyond the sweeping glissandi and diaphanous, perfectly-plucked passages, it was Ceysson’s musical intelligence that really impressed. He imbued Renié’s “Légende” with an otherworldly light, and the many levels of Hasselmans’s “La Source” seemed to float against each other with weightless transparency. Even Zabel’s rather stagy “Faust Fantasie” came off with convincing style.
It was the impressionist-era works in the second half of the program, though, that revealed Ceysson’s more substantial depths. He played the Debussy preludes “La fille aux cheveux de lin” and “Bruyères” with a delicacy almost impossible to achieve on the piano, and two clever, richly imaginative Divertimentos by André Caplet were a delight to hear. Marcel Tournier’s gentle, pastoral “Vers la source dans le bois” gave the impression of being awash in dappled sunlight.
The high point, though, may have been Gabriel Fauré’s “Une châtelaine en sa tour, op. 110,” a rich and emotionally complex work that Ceysson played to near perfection. Oddly, he seemed a little less comfortable in his own composition, “Paraphrase sur Carmen de Georges Bizet,” which had a few wooden moments. But it was an impressive and deeply involving evening all in all, and a wildly enthusiastic ovation brought Ceysson back for an encore: “Colorado Trail” by Marcel Grandjany, another French harpist-composer.