The long hiatus in this blog is a result of a lot of other work, intense heat in my fifth-floor, under-the-roof walk-up Manhattan apartment, and sheer lethargy.
I've gradually been looking back over some of the performances that I attended during the 2007-08 New York musical season, but I'm taking time out to talk about a few CDs that have recently come to my attention. I'm prompted in part by Tony Tommasini's evocative New York Times article (June 8) about the wonderful American pianist William Kapell, who died in a plane crash in 1953, at the age of 31. And Tommasini's article was prompted, in turn, by RCA Red Seal's new two-CD album, "William Kapell Rediscovered." The recordings heard on these discs were made during live concerts in Australia that took place during the months immediately preceding this amazing artist's death.
I am ashamed to admit that I had paid very little attention to Kapell's recordings until 1998, when RCA issued a nine-CD set devoted to nearly all of the pianist's recordings known at that time, but once I had made his musical acquaintance, I was hooked. Rare are the performing musicians who make you feel not only that they have thoroughly understood the works they are interpreting, but also that they are "speaking" them directly, creating them before your very ears. Maybe you don't agree with this or that detail, or even an entire interpretation; nevertheless, you are swept along by the conviction, honesty, and communicative mastery that have gone into what you are hearing. This is the feeling I have when I listen to Kapell. Take, for instance, Chopin's Barcarolle and E-flat Major Nocturne, Op. 55 No. 2, in this new album -- which I would urge every young pianist to acquire: you feel at every moment that this music is in Kapell's bloodstream, as if Chopin had told him what to do with every nuance in tempo and dynamics, every accent, the shape of every phrase. Afterward, you may ask yourself why Kapell didn't make more of a certain climax, why he slowed down at a certain point -- and these issues do count, for anyone who cares deeply about musical interpretation. But you remain awestruck by the fanatical care with which every detail has been worked out, in itself and in relation to every other detail, and by the apparent spontaneity of the result. So also the performances of works by Bach, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev in this remarkable valedictory album.
An exceptionally fine recent CD is a Harmonia Mundi release containing the Jerusalem Quartet's interpretations of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" and Quartettsatz. This is ensemble playing of the highest order: tremendous intensity combined with great interpretive intelligence and unity of intent, not to mention the striking virtuosity of each player (Alexander Pavlovsky and Segei Bresler, violins; Amichai Grosz, viola; and Kyril Zlotnikov, cello). There is a tendency toward exaggerated dynamic contrasts -- even more superfluous in this highly dramatic performance than they would be in blander versions; nevertheless, this is a CD that everyone who loves these astonishing works should have.
Two other string ensembles that I've listened to with pleasure lately are the Moscow and American string quartets, performing music by the American composer Curt Cacioppo on the somewhat out-of-the-way MSR Classics label (easily available through amazon.com, however -- as are several other recordings of the same composer's music). The two-CD album also contains performances by the Friends Chamber Group and by Cacioppo himself at the piano. I've known Cacioppo since we were kids studying with the same piano teacher, back in the mid-1960s. He went on to study with Leon Kirchner and other masters, and he has taught for many years at Haverford College, where his interest in Native American music spurred him to establish a Native American Fund and a related social justice course. His works have been performed by the Emerson Quartet and other eminent musicians. This new recording is made up of viscerally and intellectually stimulating compositions influenced in subtle ways by Navajo, Hopi, and other Native American music. Cacioppo has a unique creative voice that deserves to be heard.
I note that "Roger," commenting on an earlier blog entry, protested my description of the "constantly shouting" Joseph Calleja as Macduff in a Met performance of Verdi's Macbeth this past spring and attributed my words to "ignorance," rather than allowing for a difference of opinion. A musician who attended all the Macbeth rehearsals and performances wrote to me privately that he found Calleja "'promising' but green and monochrome, and does he think he always has the melody?" And yet another musician, who was sitting next to me at the performance I attended, had a more negative opinion than mine of Calleja. So that makes at least three ignoramuses. I have no idea whether or not "Roger" is ignorant or knowledgeable, but he must have learned about democracy by reading Mein Kampf.
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