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.
The remarkable Estonian composer Arvo Pärt — whose spare and almost mystical music has been embraced by an audience far beyond the usual classical circles — has had a triumphant run in Washington this week. After a hugely successful concert of orchestral and choral works at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday, Pärt returned on Thursday to the Phillips Collection for a more intimate performance of his chamber music — nearly a dozen works that, despite their modest size, seemed to evoke the same aura of quiet majesty, the same sense of austere spirituality, and the same purity of expression as his large-scale music.
That’s no easy task. But as the evening unfolded — sketching an arc from the pathbreaking “Für Alina” from 1976, to the premiere of his newest work, “My Heart’s in the Highlands” — it was clear that Pärt’s music thrives on being pared to its essentials, becoming all the more powerful for it. Pärt is often labeled (by admirers and detractors alike) as a “holy minimalist,” but it’s an apt title. In “Für Alina,” for example, he built a sense of limitless, light-filled space with only the simplest of musical materials, and in every work on the program he seemed to find a universe in even the smallest grain of musical sand.
That held true throughout the evening, from the tender “Variations for the Healing of Arinushka” (in a deeply felt reading by pianist Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann) to the radiant “Vater unser,” sung by alto Iris Oja. There were a few familiar works, including “Spiegel im Spiegel” (now so iconic it’s even been quoted in “The Simpsons”) and “Fratres” (heard here for violin and piano, in contrast to the orchestral version at the Kennedy Center), but less-familiar pieces such as “Mozart-Adagio” — a stunning arrangement of the second movement of Mozart’s piano sonata in F Major, K. 280 — and the relatively dark and dissonant “Es sang vor langen jahren,” showed off aspects of Pärt’s musical personality that only deepened the interest of his music.
So maybe Mozart’s violin sonatas aren’t the absolute peak of his musical achievements — they’re still hugely enjoyable works, particularly when played with the warmth and easy naturalness that violinist Stefan Jackiw brought to the Sonata in B-flat, K. 378 on Wednesday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. The 29-year-old Jackiw has everything you expect in a rising star — nimble technique, expressive tone, thoughtful interpretation — but his Mozart had a rare and wonderful sense of intimacy as well, as if he were having a private conversation with pianist Anna Polonsky, and we in the audience were just listening in.
For all the charm of the Mozart, though, the real heart of the evening (part of Washington Performing Arts Society’s “Virtuoso Series”) came in Witold Lutoslawski’s “Partita for Violin and Piano” from 1984, a work so explosive that the word “volcanic” barely covers it. Darkly lyrical, wildly atmospheric, it built to such white-hot intensity in the central Largo (aptly described by Jackiw as “an apocalyptic meditation”) that you thought the violin would erupt in flames. Jackiw threw himself into the music as if nothing else mattered and turned in the kind of playing you always hope for at a concert but rarely hear. It was an absolutely spectacular performance, run through with urgent and often unsettling beauty.
When Lutoslawski passed away in 1994, the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho wrote a tender “Nocturne” for solo violin in his memory. It’s a haunting piece sketched in shadowy wisps of sound, and Jackiw used it as a deft transition to Brahms’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108. Brahms can give a glowing finish to just about any concert, and this particular work radiates so much light and life and joyful optimism that it’s impossible not to be swept away by it — especially in Jackiw and Polonsky’s expressive, elegantly polished reading.
The world isn’t exactly short of brilliant concert pianists — it’s sometimes hard to turn around without knocking one over — but Martin Helmchen stands out even in that remarkable crowd.
Still in his early 30s, Helmchen has been winning praise in Europe for his high-powered performances, and his effortless virtuosity was abundantly on display at the Terrace Theater on Saturday, where he performed as part of the Hayes Piano Series of the Washington Performing Arts Society. But it wasn’t so much the young German’s technique — which truly is spectacular — that made the afternoon memorable as it was the distinctive poetic imagination that he brought to virtually everything he played.
The program itself didn’t veer too daringly from the beaten path: a mix of mainstream German and Austrian works, with Schubert’s great “Wanderer” Fantasy as the linchpin. But Helmchen seemed to find a sense of freshness and discovery in every work, from Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828 (in a magnificent, slightly chilled reading), to an exceptionally vivid and detailed account of Schumann’s Waldszenen, Op. 82. A collection of nine “forest scenes” that range from the simple melodies of “Einsame Blumen” (Solitary Flowers) to the feverishly colored “Vogel als Prophet” (The Prophet Bird), Waldszenen is Schumann at his most elusive and complex, and Helmchen turned in a subtle, and often enchanting, performance.
Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 was the climax of the program, and Helmchen gave it a big-boned, heroic performance that brought the audience to its feet. But the real surprise of the afternoon may have been Anton Webern’s Variations for piano, Op. 27. Webern’s often thought of as a cold-hearted serialist, smiling cruelly as he cuts his music to its bare essentials, but in Helmchen’s hands the Variations came to life, wonderfully warm and animated and even charming.
In all, a fascinating and deeply rewarding concert, which closed with a piano transcription of Bach’s serene and infinitely beautiful Chorale Prelude Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (I), BWV 639.
Is there anything a composer wouldn’t give for a bit of Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical DNA? Bach’s own children were the winners of that genetic lottery, of course, and perhaps none more so than second son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who rose to superstar status in his lifetime, influenced composers from Haydn to Beethoven — and then vanished almost completely from view. But with his 300th anniversary this year, C.P.E Bach’s wildly inventive music is coming back into the spotlight, and on Sunday the Washington Bach Consort put on a program at the National Presbyterian Church that revealed just how innovative this composer really was.
The younger Bach's music straddles the Baroque and Classical eras, and the afternoon opened with “Heilig” (Wq 218) for chorus and orchestra, a work so deeply connected to tradition that it even quotes from his father’s music. But it was the next work, the “Sinfonia in D Major” (Wq 183/1), that highlighted the forward-looking “expressive” style that he's best remembered for. Full of rich contrasts, colorful harmonies and sudden shifts of rhythm and mood, the sinfonia is still a surprising, even edgy work.
To these ears, though, Consort director J. Reilly Lewis seemed to tone down much of Bach’s extroverted drama — the intense, punching rhythms that open the piece came off like gentle caresses, and the rest of the piece seemed out to sooth rather than delight. (That may have been partly due to the soft-voiced period instruments that the Consort uses, whose sound can be swallowed in enormous spaces.) But the next work— the cantata “Anbetung dem Erbarmer” (Wq 243) — came off more strongly, helped by fine, detailed arias by the four soloists, particularly soprano Emily Noël and bass Steven Combs.
If the first half of the program was a bit on the tame side, the closing work — the spectacular Magnificat in D Major (Wq 215) from 1749 — made up for it with a vengeance. Lewis turned in a crisp, gutsy performance with an almost physical sense of purpose and obvious delight in showcasing Bach’s anything-goes musical personality. Matthew Loyal Smith’s refined tenor voice, and the rich countertenor of Roger O. Isaacs, added depth to this full-blooded reading of a work that deserves to be much more widely heard.
Ann Schein is one of the most impressive — if relatively unsung — pianists in America, so her recital at the National Gallery of Art’s West Garden Court on Wednesday was a distinct and all-too-rare pleasure. The concert was part of a Gallery series built around Cecelia Porter’s new book, “Five Lives in Music: Women Performers, Composers, and Impresarios from the Baroque to the Present” — which devotes a chapter to Schein — and Porter, a music critic who writes for The Washington Post, was on hand to plug the book and introduce the pianist.
The introduction never really got to the heart of what makes Schein’s playing so compelling and full of character. But perhaps only the music can do that, and, as quickly became clear in Maurice Ravel’s elegant “Sonatine,” there’s little question that Schein is a pianist of the first rank. Probing, insightful, balancing delicacy with great power, Schein turned in a performance that shimmered with light, with a kind of effortless naturalness in every note. You could not wish for more.
Schein is in her 70s now, but her technique shows little sign of fading. And even the thickest musical tangles of Claude Debussy’s “L’isle joyeuse” came off with impeccable clarity. Debussy wrote the piece at the start of a love affair, and Schein captured its intoxicating, even rapturous spirit in a reading that never lacked for excitement. Chopin’s Piano Sonata #3 in B minor, which closed the program, was just as vivid but even more complex and nuanced, from the glittering Scherzo to the quiet pathos of the Largo to the surging Finale. Schein turned in a deeply integrated and thoughtful performance and rewarded the standing ovation with a quiet and understated encore, Chopin’s posthumous Etude in A flat Major.