Yuja Wang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO
Honegger / Schumann / Brahms

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2019-05-26

4.5-star rating

2019-05-31 — Original posting



In Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag again, just two days after the last concert! This time, a concert with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO, organized by Migros Kulturprozent Classics. Migros is Switzerland’s oldest and biggest supermarket chain. It is organized as a cooperative, with the statutory obligation to spend a fixed percentage of its annual turnover in the support of cultural events, such as promoting and supporting artists, or offering concerts at prices that are affordable also to people who would not normally attend such events.

This event followed the pattern of their concerts in Zurich for the past seasons:

  • One hour prior to the main event, there is a pre-concert. The organization presents young, emerging talents, by giving them the opportunity of a small-scale concert performance (free for everybody with a ticket for the main event). In Zurich, these pre-concerts are in the “Klangraum” in the first floor, allowing for audiences up to around 100 people.
  • The main concert is in the concert hall (1224 seats) of the Tonhalle Maag, as long as the “old” historic Tonhalle is in renovation. As that restoration is taking longer than expected, the Tonhalle Maag will remain Zurich’s main concert hall till mid-2021.
  • Apart from being some 20% smaller, the Tonhalle Maag also has limited space in the foyer. In order to avoid clogging the foyer, the Intendant (artistic director) of Migros Kulturprozent Classics, Mischa Damev, is performing a short, public on-stage interview during the intermission, typically with a musician. This time, he interviewed Dr. Clemens Trautmann, President of Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Berlin, who happened to be in Zurich for this concert.


Soloist: Yuja Wang, Piano

The Soloist in Robert Schumann’s piano concerto was Yuja Wang (*1987, Beijing). She is an artist who definitely does not require an introduction. I attended two of Yuja Wang’s concert at Tonhalle Zurich (Great Hall, 2014-09-11 with orchestra, and three days later in the Small Hall, 2014-09-14, chamber music), and more recently, I have heard her in a duo recital on 2017-12-12 at Tonhalle Maag.

CBSO — The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

In contrast to the soloist, both the orchestra and the conductor in this concert were first-time encounters for me. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is one of Britain’s most prominent symphony orchestras. The history of the orchestra goes back to 1920, when it emerged in succession of numerous predecessor orchestras in the City of Birmingham. Prominent, past music directors of the ensemble include

Under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, the orchestra gained substantial international reputation. It kept, or even increased that reputation in the years after Rattle.

Conductor: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

One year after she worked with the orchestra as guest conductor for the first time, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (*1986, Lithuania, see also Wikipedia) became the orchestra’s music director. She was born in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, into a family of musicians: her father is a choir conductor, he mother a pianist and singer, also prior generations included several musicians. At age 11, Gražinytė-Tyla took the decision to study music. Initially, she studied choral conducting. She never played an instrument, but continued studying music at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla completed her degree in 2007. Continued studies took her to the Music Conservatory Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in Leipzig, and on to the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts). Further stations in Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s career:

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has won several prizes as conductor at competitions.

Setting, etc.

The venue with its 1224 seats was almost (estimate: 95%) sold out. My wife and I had seats 22 and 23 in row 4 (out of 5) in the center of the main balcony. There is a fair distance to the stage. However, the size of the venue is not huge, the acoustics are excellent also in that position, and certainly balanced. The view onto the orchestra is definitely much better than in the parquet seating. The photos (© Rolf Kyburz, all rights reserved) are just from an iPhone, hence with limited quality. I deliberately disabled zoomed viewing.

Concert & Review

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Honegger: Pastorale d’été, H.31 (1920)

Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955) was the son of Swiss parents living in Le Havre, France. He composed his Pastorale d’été, H.31 in 1920, during a stay in Wengen, in the Bernese Alps. It’s one of his earliest orchestral works—idyllic, mostly in traditional style:

  • Calme — Vif et gay — Calme — Tempo (très calme)

The piece (just about 8 minutes) is for a limited size orchestra, featuring flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and strings.

Orchestra—Appearance, Setup

This wasn’t just the beginning of the concert. To me, and probably many others, it was also the first encounter with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO. Expectedly, the latter took the stage in the well-organized manner of an ensemble with tradition. The orchestra used a modern setup with the two violin voices on the left, followed by violas, cellos and double basses at the right (estimate: 16 + 14 + 12 + 10 + 6 string players). Not unusual for Anglo-Saxon orchestras, the concertmaster gathered a separate applause in his delayed appearance.

As for the orchestra’s “inner workings”: almost without exception, the concertmaster in orchestras is a pivotal function, acting as the conductor’s “prolonged arm” in coordinating the string groups, in cooperation with the other first desks. It was interesting to note that here, the other violinists weren’t just “recipients”. Quite to the contrary, also the concertmaster’s neighbor, and even the people at the desks behind him, were often (almost) just as active in the performance: I sometimes had the impression of not 1 or 2 violinists working as concertmaster (& assistant), but rather 6, 7, or even 8 concertmasters! This left the impression of a very active, engaged orchestra.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Inconspicuous in her black trouser dress, petite, but not necessarily delicate! Rather: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla looked firmly grounded in her ballerinas, active, and very much in control of the orchestra! Gražinytė-Tyla conducts with baton, with smooth, harmonious arm movements, often reaching out for big, swaying gestures, relaxed, but involving her entire body, where necessary. Her direction is not strictly systematic, often just hinting at the meter. Rather she is shaping the music, the phrases, especially with her left hand. The conductor is in constant, lively contact with her orchestra. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla obviously is very firm, familiar with the score, and knows what she wants to achieve!

The Performance

What a peaceful, calm and serene opening for a concert! The murmuring of nature, of Mother Earth, nightingales and other birds singing, the wind gently moving trees: a harmonious build-up in gentle waves. In Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s hands, the transition to vif et gay was totally natural, almost unnoticeable. One could observe the same with the transition back to Tempo I (calme), and later to the Très calme for the last 13 bars. Compelling, very atmospheric—both the music and the performance. And again: it simply was an excellent entry into the concert!

Rating: ★★★★½

Yuja Wang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Yuja Wang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla & the CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Schumann: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor, op.54

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) completed his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A minor, op.54, in 1845. It remained his only piano concerto. It took the composer another 5 years to complete his Cello Concerto in A minor, op.129 (never perfomed in the composer’s lifetime), followed by the Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 23 in 1853. That latter work remained essentially locked away for at least 80 years after Schumann’s death. The piano concerto, however, has established and kept a key position in concert life ever since: the work of a genius! The composition comes in 3 movements, whereby the movements 2 and 3 are performed as one, attacca:

  1. Allegro affettuoso — Animato — Andante espressivo — Allegro (Tempo I) — Più animato — Tempo I — Animato — (Cadenza) — Allegro molto
  2. Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso —
  3. Allegro vivace

The Performance

I. Allegro affettuoso — Animato —

Expectedly, Yuja Wang threw herself into this opening cascade of descending, punctuated chords, rather fast and flashy, with very quick semiquaver upbeats. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (and Schumann, of course) set a distinct contrast in the orchestral response: taking a soft, careful start in the “Clara” (C-H-A-A) theme, building up gradually. Yuja took this up, in a gentle dialog / interaction with the orchestra, throughout the first theme, distinctly slower than Schumann’s metronome annotation (more affettuoso than Allegro).

Character and tempo altered with the entry of the second theme, where the solo part seemed to engage in an intense dialog between urging, pushing, emote segments and gentle, lyrical, hesitant / reflective responses. The dialog with the oboe was very careful, delicate. Throughout the first movement, Yuja Wang seemed to focus on the gentle “Clara” aspect of the concerto, keeping the “male” (Robert) component “under the hood”, under control. It often merely existed as grumbling / murmuring in the underground. Yes, there was the occasional, short, intense outburst, such as the one leading into the tutti in bar 134. But there, the dramatic aspect remained in the orchestra’s / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s hands.

Andante espressivo —

The Andante espressivo was extremely differentiated in dynamics and agogics, and very introverted, pensive, leaving the subtle waves of emerging emotions in the orchestra’s hands.

Allegro (Tempo I) — Più animato — Tempo I —

With the Allegro to the (slightly) urging attitude, again with very short, almost slurred upbeats, not trying to hammer out the semiquaver upbeats. And the transition to the Più animato (bar 205) was very impulsive in the agogics. The Più animato itself returned to the introverted, mellow (“female”) mode, despite the fluent pace, only gradually picking up momentum. The latter evaporated with the Tempo I, starting again entirely mellow, pensively, even dreamy, for a new, gradual build-up.

Animato —

Also the Animato did not bring the rhapsodic that many other pianists tend to present in this segment. By now, I had the feeling that (to my taste) the artists (mainly the soloist, I guess) were taking this movement too much from the lyrical, mellow / soft perspective. Yes, it was written for Robert’s wife Clara Schumann, who also premiered the concerto. However, as most of Schumann’s works, this concerto also retains “Robertian” (i.e., Florestan) components. And keeping those so strongly controlled, if not hidden away can barely benefit the composition. Indeed, the extended Animato segment with its dynamically very balanced textures tended to lose tension. Too gentle, overall? Consequently, the Accelerando poco a poco wasn’t so much poco a poco, but rather energetic, in an urgent need to pick up momentum towards the Cadenza.

Cadenza — Allegro molto

Even in the cadenza, only momentarily, in the few f bars in the center, did Yuja Wang “let her horses loose”. Otherwise, she stuck to a slightly veiled, mellow touch / articulation.


II. Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso —

Rather pp than p in the solo part, but swift in the semiquaver upbeats. In general: very, very mellow & subtle in the touch, occasionally with gentle arpeggiando articulation, e.g., for the fp accents. Very cautious in the occasional ornament (inverted mordent, and especially turns), sometimes retracting into the most subtle ppp and below, where the piano part is mostly illustration, if not accompaniment.


III. Allegro vivace

At last!? Already the initial piano interjections had plenty of impetus, energy. And then, with the main theme, Yuja Wang instantly switched a very fast pace. It was fast enough for the quavers to sound slurred, if not a tad washed out. And the subsequent solo definitely felt on the fast side. The tempo was fast enough for the sudden switch from a 3/4 meter to a hidden 3/2 (first in the orchestra, then also in the solo) to lose parts of its surprise (and intendedly confusing) effect on the listener. As if it was simply “played over”. Throughout the movement, clarity and precision of the articulation in the orchestra, as well as the coordination with the piano were occasionally suffering. The horn mishap in bar 272—the worst possible moment—was merely an indication for the strained tempo.

That said, apart from the occasionally “slurred” articulation, Yuja Wang’s playing was very differentiated in touch and dynamics, agile in the accents, and transparent. She also took care of hidden middle voices (later in the solo starting at bar 663), keeping her playing typically very (if not too) fluent, with the exception of occasional, almost extreme rubato, e.g., prior to the coda, into which the artists were storming almost furiously.


Overall Rating: ★★★★

Some thoughts in the aftermath: it goes without saying that Yuja Wang’s technical prowess is astounding, superb. However, I don’t think that her view on the Schumann concerto is “quite there yet”. Apart from the last movement (where the tempo was excessive), the first two movement to me felt too soft, too gentle, mellow, “too much Eusebius”. Personally, I think that the composer included more of his own “Florestan” personality in this concerto. And: I’m not sure that Clara was quite the throughout fairy-like, gentle personality as which the first two movements (i.e., their interpretation) seemed to depict her. Merely a projection of the artist(s)? Or were the artists right, and the projection was on the composer’s side? The fact remains that I wasn’t all happy about this performance.

Yuja Wang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Yuja Wang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla & the CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Given Yuja Wang’s popularity, her large fan community everywhere, and her performance, it was clear that the audience would not let her go without several encores. After the first applause, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla didn’t even re-appear on stage: she left the podium (and the attention) to Yuja, who ended up playing three encores: a selection of “hits” among her list of popular encores.

Encore_1 — Wang: Variations on Mozart’s “Alla Turca”

One of Yuja Wang’s most popular encores (must also be one of her personal favorites) is based on the Turkish march, the last movement from the Piano Sonata No.11 in A major, K.331 (“Alla turca“) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791). It was the Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos (*1972, see also Wikipedia) who created a set of highly virtuosic, artistic, and often thundering variations on that theme, as encore.

Yuja Wang adopted Volodos’ very early on, and she soon started adding her own, jazzy variations to the piece. Meanwhile, Volodos’ encore has disappeared entirely, and right after the theme, Yuja Wang falls into “jazzy mode” of her own set of variations, demonstrating her extremely virtuosic and flashily agile artistry. By now, Yuja’s version is very well-known and omnipresent in the social medi. It remains fascinating, enthralling to watch, though!


Yuja Wang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Yuja Wang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla & the CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Encore_2 — Liszt: Transcription of Schubert’s Lied “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, S.558/8

The second encore was a genuine, romantic work. Rather: a romantic transcription of a late-classical / early romantic Lied. Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886) transcribed numerous works by other composers (from Lieder up to entire symphonies) for the piano. One of these is based on the Lied “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), op.2, D.118 by Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828). The original song is on a text from Faust, Part I by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832).

As an encore, Liszt’s transcription is far less “flashy” than Yuja’s other two showpieces. Nevertheless, performing the Lied accompaniment, this constantly rolling movement of the spinning wheel and the harmonies of the other hand in the piano part, while at the same time doing the singer’s cantilena with “extra fingers in-between” is the key challenge in this transcription.

Technically, Yuja Wang masters this effortlessly, very subtle in the dynamics and the beautiful legato cantilena, forming impressive phrasing / dramatic arches, and letting the spinning wheel come to a gentle rest at the end. An excellent performance, indeed!


Yuja Wang, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Yuja Wang & the CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Encore_3 — Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from Carmen

In her third and last encore, Yuja Wang threw herself into one of history’s top virtuosic piano challenges. She selected a piece that the late Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989) created for his own recitals, as encore. It’s a set of variations on a theme from “Carmen”, the most famous and successful opera (and composition) by George Bizet (1838 – 1875). Vladimir Horowitz’ first out of at least five documented versions dates back to 1927. The virtuoso pianist repeatedly revised, changed / expanded the set, and the last revision (played in a recital at the White House in Washington, D.C.) is from 1978.

A piece full of acrobatic wizardry, building up to veritable keyboard thunder! From a distance, I could not follow Yuja’s facial mimics, but I’m sure she performed this with a gentle, relaxed smile on her face, through the thunderous ending and beyond. A bouncer piece?


Some Thoughts in the Aftermath…

Two of these (1 & 3) are highly virtuosic, acrobatic, and also #2 is technically very demanding. Did Yuja Wang feel under-challenged by the Schumann concerto? My thoughts are wandering on:

  • True, Yuja’s abilities, her technical prowess / mastership are astounding, breathtaking, and people, her fan club are all expecting these ultra-virtuosic trickeries. However, isn’t it all getting a bit all-too-predictable with her encores?
  • Also from her perspective: sure, she must have fun playing her acrobatic encores. However, doesn’t it start to feel boring, having to produce these same encores evening after evening after evening?
  • The artist has gotten herself into that pattern, and she still may enjoy the fun aspect of it. However, does she never feel like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s famous poem) who once called for brooms—and suddenly finds himself in a situation where he can’t stop more brooms and more water buckets from appearing?
  • A little bit—just a little bit—I did indeed have the impression that to Yuja (and those familiar with her art), the encores had the flavor of compulsory exercises, where the suspense was limited to the question of which of her (limited) set of encores she would select.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla / CBSO @ Tonhalle Maag, 2019-05-26 (© Rolf Kyburz)

Brahms: Symphony No.2 in D major, op.73

Not just in the genre of symphonies, but also in the area of chamber music, Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) felt the overwhelming (or rather: oppressing) shadow of Beethoven’s genius. It took him till 1876 to complete and publish his Symphony No.1 in C minor, op.68. With this, the ban seemed broken, the Symphony No.2 in D major, op.73 followed a year later, in 1877. According to Wikipedia, the composer wrote to his publisher that the symphony “is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” There are four movements:

  1. Allegro non troppo
  2. Adagio non troppo — L’istesso tempo, ma grazioso
  3. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) — Presto, ma non assai — Tempo primo
  4. Allegro con spirito — Tranquillo — In tempo

The Performance

Compared to the Schumann concerto, the orchestra now featured two extra violins and two extra cellos. Plus, there are now extra wind instruments, now featuring a total of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns (not just 2), 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 bass tuba, and of course timpani.

I. Allegro non troppo

The tempo annotation is Allegro non troppo. However, the music initially feels absolutely peaceful. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla kept the calm, left the horns all the time they needed to play out their parts. Only at [A], she started to build up, gaining momentum, and her movements & body language reflected the swaying of the music. As the music turned more agitated (e.g., around [G] in the development part), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla seemed to liven up. In her intent, was she more agile in the agogics than the orchestra, or did she just “inject momentum” into the ensemble by conducting a tiny bit ahead?

What counts, of course, is the end result. Throughout the movement, I liked Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s clear tempo concept: there was never any doubt about when she wanted to accelerate or rather hold back. She was very agile in the rubato, and the orchestra responded instantly. I noted the high-quality string sound: dense & full, especially in the violins. Also the performance of the woodwinds was excellent. Maybe more than some of the brass: the bass tuba wasn’t always quite careful in articulation & intonation, and also the trombones to me seemed less coherent / convincing in the sound quality. My last quibble is that the exposition unfortunately was not repeated. Maybe the concert was long enough already?

II. Adagio non troppo — L’istesso tempo, ma grazioso

Beautiful, this singing of the cellos, their swaying dynamics, and the horns followed suit, taking up the cantilena from the cellos. The melodies were blooming, but without over-indulging in sweetness or exaggerating expression and dynamics, but with clarity in articulation, throughout. One could almost touch how much Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla feels at ease with this composer, and how much she is familiar with this symphony!

III. Allegretto grazioso (quasi andantino) — Presto, ma non assai — Tempo primo

Right in the first bars: this beautiful, warm and mellow sound in the oboe solo: excellent! That first part was moving forward at a fluent pace (keeping the necessary inner tension) slow enough for an Andantino, fast enough for an Allegretto grazioso, but never feeling rushed: just simply “right”!

Under Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s direction, the Presto, ma non assai was fast, flawless in the coordination, precise and virtuosic. The transition at Tempo primo was simply perfect: seamless and natural, hardly noticeable at all. I noted the distinct articulation in the oboe, with the third note in every bar (with the acciaccatura) was kept short, almost as if it had a staccato dot. This just reinforced the swaying. In the final Tempo I, the strings used a slightly more mellow variant of this articulation.

IV. Allegro con spirito — Tranquillo — In tempo

Excellent sotto voce playing throughout the strings: a very subtle murmuring, dark in color, but clear in the articulation. With the sudden f outbreak at [A] (bar 23), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla switched to a faster tempo, creating a stark contrast to the introductory bars. An outstanding performance from both Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the orchestra! Excellent in coordination, clear in articulation, agile in accents / sforzandi and rhythmic changes. And when the sotto voce returned, the music was so full of tension, even suspense. At the second f outbreak, the tempo seemed even faster than the first time: enthralling, with an irresistible pull forward.

Though, Brahms didn’t want to let go just yet: there is the largamente at [M] (bar 281), where the melody was so wonderfully played out broadly in violins and violas. Throughout the movement, one could feel Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s shaping mind in articulation, dynamics, and of course in the tempo. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla compellingly led the orchestra towards the triumphant, if not euphoric ending: Why in the world did Brahms call this symphony “all melancholy”?? Was this irony, sarcasm even, maybe?

Rating: ★★★★½

Pre-Concert: AKMI Duo (Valentine Michaud & Akvilė Šileikaitė): Bernstein, Albright

The AKMI Duo emerged 2015, from the encounter of two music students at the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts):

Valentine Michaud

… was born in France, but lives in Switzerland since 2010. She started playing saxophone at age 8. In parallel to the saxophone, she also studied piano. Her studies took her from Nantes in France to the HÉMU in Lausanne, where she obtained her saxophone Bachelor’s degree in 2013. Simultaneously, she did studies in musicology at the Sorbonne University in Paris. 2015 – 2018, after obtaining her Master’s degree in instrumental pedagogy, she did a second Master’s degree in solo performance at the ZHdK. The artist now teaches at the Conservatoire Populaire de Musique de Genève. While studying, Valentine Michaud started playing in Jazz formations. Her career as a soloist has already taken her to concert halls throughout Europe. For additional detail, see the artist’s biography a her Website.

Akvilė Šileikaitė

… grew up in Lithuania (was it mere coincidence that together with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, we heard two Lituanian women on the same day??). Akvilė Šileikaitė has been studying painting and piano in Klaipėda. 2011 – 2015, she continued her piano studies at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre (LMTA). Thereafter, she moved to Zurich, to study at the ZHdK. The artist has won numerous prized at competitions as a pianist, attended master classes, and started a career as concert pianist. On top of that, she also has had numerous successes as a professional painter. A true multi-talent!

The piano in this duo recital was a Steinway model B-211 mid-size grand.

Bernstein: Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1941/1942)

1940, after he left the Curtis Institute of Music on Philadelphia, Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) moved to New York, while also beginning studies with the conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874 – 1951). During that time, in 1941 / 1942, he composed his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. The Wikipedia article claims that the first movement shows influences by Paul Hindemith (1895 – 1963) and Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990), while the second movement is sad to anticipates elements from Bernstein’s musical West Side Story.

The AKMI Duo obviously performed an arrangement for alto saxophone and piano. Bernstein’s sonata comes in two movements:

  1. Grazioso
  2. Andantino — Vivace e leggiero

I. Grazioso, First Encounter

To me, Bernstein’s first bars primarily made me think of a mix of late expressionism (motifs, melody fragments) and allusions to Second Viennese School dodecaphony: near-tonal melody fragments in an atonal environment. Valentine Michaud reinforces the impression of “harmonically hanging in the air” through deliberately “cloudy”, soft and mellow articulation and singing on the alto saxophone. This “in the air” (which must have been the composer’s intent) makes the listener take some time to “home in” on this music. Particularly if—as in my case—one is not familiar with the composition. And as the artists did not publish / pre-announce the program, there was no chance to get prepared to the music.

However, as the music, the dynamics and the articulation picks up more grip, the texture gets more lively. At the same time, one can grasp more and more tonal fragments. In this momentarily tonal environment, the fragments turn into beautiful little melodies. These again start to form a bigger melodic context, and one can appreciate not only the quality of the composer’s early work, but also that of the two artists! Valentine Michaud effortlessly masters the full spectrum from the most silent, soft and distant humming / murmuring up to intense singing at the climax. In the latter, she kept the tone smooth and flat, applying an inconspicuous vibrato at most.

While for most of the movement (excepting the lively climax) the saxophone focused the melodic aspect, a lot of the motoric component and rhythmic drive came from Akvilė Šileikaitė’s accompaniment. The two partners were seamlessly integrating into a convincing duo.

II. Andantino — Vivace e leggiero

The Andantino beginning is soft, gentle, lyrical: here, Valentine Michaud applied an expressive, harmonious vibrato. At the same time, she kept the tone smooth, singing, up to the sudden switch to Vivace e leggiero. That was joyful, playful, with jazzy syncopes—with cosy segments in-between. Akvilė Šileikaitė’s accompaniment remained alert and agile, the coordination flawless.

Temporarily, the movement returns to a calm, serene atmosphere, with beautiful, smoothly singing cantilenas—hovering. It then returns to playful, lively rhythms, building up to a jazzy climax and ending. It was interesting how Valentine Michaud managed to create a “3D scenery”: through dynamics and articulation she managed to create impressions of proximity and distance. And Bernstein’s early masterpiece didn’t fail, of course; catchy and easy to understand!

True, the sonata is written for clarinet. The saxophone has rather different sound characteristics: much wider in dynamic range, more possibilities to alter / modulate the tone. However, it also is a single-reed instrument, very similar in the mouthpiece, the sound-generating aspect. So, I see the adaptation to saxophone as legitimate, even enriching Bernstein’s composition: well done!

Rating: ★★★★

Albright: Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano

William Albright (1944 – 1998) was an American composer, pianist and organist. Born in Indiana, he started playing the piano at age 5. He received his musical education at Juilliard School (1959 – 1962), the Eastman School of Music (1962 – 1963), and the University of Michigan (1962 – 1970), with an interruption of one year (1968/69) that he spent in Paris, studying with Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992). For the remainder of his musical career, he taught as faculty at the University of Michigan.

Albright’s music combines a wide variety of styles, from both tonal and non-tonal classical to popular music, with influences from non-Western music. His Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano is from 1984 and has four movements:

  1. Two-Part Invention: Vivo, molto intenso, alla fanfara
  2. La follia nuova, a lament for George Cacioppo: Largo (Chaconne)
  3. Scherzo “Will o’ the wisp”: Sotto voce, “Will o’ the wisp”
  4. Recitative and Dance: Semplice ma con rubato — Mad Dance: Presto

I. Two-Part Invention

As a genuine composition for saxophone and piano, this sonata exploits a much wider scope in the saxophone’s range of colors and expressions. Consequently, the first part is playing with sounds and sonorities (also on the piano), a constant interplay between impulses and holding moments, full of tension. An intense, lively and tight dialog between the two instruments. Besides a large dynamic span, the movement also moves into extremes in pitch on both instruments, including shrill heights on the saxophone. The constant alterations in pace, temperament and meter make this a challenge in the mutual coordination—the two artists remained firm and coherent through the piece, proving that they are very familiar both with the music, as well as of course each other’s intents!

The listener is hardly able to recognize melodic-thematic structure. However, the movement is entertaining, certainly interesting, thanks to the diversity in the segments: from the “two-part dialog” in the first part to the gently motoric middle part, on to the wild excursions in the cadenza, ending in a bass-hammering closure on the piano.

II. La follia nuova, a lament for George Cacioppo

The beginning is entirely serene, calm, with baroque harmonies, contemplative: a starry night, or rather the ghastly loneliness / void of “Le gibet” from Gaspard de la nuit by Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937)? I had the latter association primarily when a similar segment returned later in the movement. From the quiet beginning, the music gradually builds up to an intense intensity, but remains calm in the base pace, always with the “baroque” line of harmonies in the left hand on the piano.

After a general pause, the composer writes “pppp (very muted)—turn away from audience… a private performance, perhaps looking into the piano”. Which Valentine Michaud of course did, producing the most mellow and gentle, the softest possible tones on her instrument. In the final bars on the piano, the composer’s annotation is “like a tolling bell (repeat any number of times)”. So, my association with Le gibet wasn’t merely coincidental? Very interesting, beautiful music, for sure!

III. Scherzo “Will o’ the wisp”

“Will o’ the wisp” — Ignis fatuus (in German: Irrlicht, i.e., errand light): erratically trembling chattering on the saxophone, the piano responding, growing into a lively dialogue / interplay, disappearing into quasi niente. Fun and very pictorial, a really ghastly little Scherzo!

IV. Recitative and Dance

To me, the recitative (Semplice ma con rubato) felt like “gentle, moderate, even partly tonal dodecaphony” that gradually built up to repeated waves. The wings of a bird that in the end disappears in the height, in the distance? In stark contrast then the Mad Dance—motoric, repetitive pattern, strongly rhythmic, with occasional reminiscenses of the initial recitative, and a sudden, violent ending in the bass on the piano: Fun, for sure!

Throughout the sonata, the performance was both virtuosic and compelling, the coordination between the two artists flawless and firm: excellent!

Rating: ★★★★½


Valentine Michaud and Akvilė Šileikaitė concluded their recital with a short Jazz piece (Ragtime?). Sadly, I didn’t understand the announcement (and I’m not a Jazz expert). However, I can certainly say that here, the two artists let their horses loose, in rhythm, virtuosity, agility. The ultimate fun, enthralling, and utterly entertaining: thanks for the pleasure!

Rating: ★★★★

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