Catalyst well balanced at Maverick

The Catalyst Quartet made its Maverick Concerts debut on July 21 with a provocative program. It began with the ensemble’s own arrangement of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” The transition from harpsichord to string quartet (an ensemble unknown to Bach) went smoothly enough, clarifying the interweaving lines of Bach’s counterpoint. But this was the Listener’s Digest version, only a third of the music and lacking the repeats which I find necessary (so, really, only a sixth). If this ensemble ever offers us the whole Bach masterpiece with embellished repeats, I’ll be on line for a ticket. My antipathy for Philip Glass’s music has been expressed in these pages pretty often. His Quartet No. 3, “Mishima,” is literally movie music, derived from Glass’s music for that film. All of it sounded to me like uninteresting material, brainlessly repeated, so when some of the audience greeted it with roars of approval I had to wonder what they were enjoying. Israeli pianist Daniel Gortler opened the second half with mellow playing of three Brahms Intermezzi, then joined the quartet for an appropriately extroverted and sexy version of Franck’s Piano Quintet. (It was supposedly written for his mistress.) For all the fervor in the playing, the instruments remained well-balanced. 

I wasn’t as happy with the balance on July 28, when pianist Michael Brown, making his Maverick debut, joined with the returning Jupiter Quartet. The first half of the concert was splendid. Mozart’s Quartet in A, K. 464, was sweet and mellow and vital, the musicians playing with such unanimity they sounded like a single instrument. Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11, in F Minor, Op. 122, another of his masterpieces from the 1960s, sounded frightening in its intensity. The sudden attack at the beginning of the Recitative movement was truly scary, and the whole performance was memorable. As Brown and the Jupiters began Brahms’s great Piano Quintet, though, I felt vaguely dissatisfied. The pianist wasn’t drowning out the strings but I still felt a strong lack of clarity. Eventually, I identified my problem; Brown was using too much pedal, muddying the texture of the piano, which in turn made the whole ensemble sound unclear. Although the playing was otherwise fine, this problem continued to disturb me. After the formal program, though, Brown gave us an “After the Concert” treat with the Second Improvisation for Piano, Op. 47, by the neglected Russian composer-pianist Nikolai Medtner. Despite its title, this is actually a substantial set of variations, lasting nearly half an hour. It’s consistently interesting, as Medtner draws from a wide group of influences, even including ragtime (in the “Humoresque” section). I was grateful for the chance to hear this music, although I still thought Brown used too much pedal. He does make a lovely sound on the piano.

Next weekend, on Saturday, August 3, jazz pianist Christian Sands does a Young Mavericks concert at 11 a.m., then returns with his Trio for Jazz at the Maverick at 8 p.m. Sunday at 4 p.m., the Quatuor Danel from Belgium makes its Maverick debut with works of Beethoven, Janácek, and Franck. The Franck String Quartet is a real rarity; the Janácek is a masterpiece. Saturday evening, August 10, at 8, Steve Gorn, Barun Kumar Pal, and Samir Chatterjee will play “Indian Ragas — Tribute to the Art of Ravi Shankar.” Sunday, August 11, at 4 p.m., is the annual Friends of the Maverick concert; you have to join the Friends to get a ticket. In the past these concerts have sometimes been relatively brief, but this year the Harlem String Quartet offers a full-length concert with works of Brahms, Haydn, William Bolcom (some of his delectable rags), and Dizzy Gillespie. You can get loads of information and advance tickets at www.maverickconcerts.org. 

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Pianist Vadym Kholodenko, who performed for PianoSummer at SUNY New Paltz’s Studley Theatre, won the gold medal at the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition and has built a substantial career since then. He obviously has all the technique a pianist could want, and he makes an uncommonly beautiful sound, but I was less happy with his musicianship. His playing of Mozart and Beethoven (the wonderful Op. 126 Bagatelles) was full of the romantic mannerisms I might expect to hear in Chopin or Schumann, but his sense of classical period style didn’t seem at all appropriate to me. A selection of Leopold Godowsky’s “Studies on Chopin Etudes” showed off Godowsky’s imaginative approach to piano technique. But the miracle of Chopin’s Etudes is that he takes technical problems and transmutes them into wonderful music. Godowsky turns them back into technical stunts, rather like watching a great ballet dancer performing while juggling. Kholodenko played splendidly but I didn’t care. Only in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Sonata in C Sharp Minor, Op. 80, did I feel a gratifying meeting of performer and repertoire, and I enjoyed this thoroughly even though the piece is minor Tchaikovsky, a student work with a late opus number. Kholodenko’s Scarlatti encore was charming. I covered only two main concerts of PianoSummer in this column, but I also greatly enjoyed some of the daytime events, which I recommend to you for next summer.

The Hudson Valley Philharmonic has announced its stimulating 2019-20 season, with advance tickets and subscriptions already on sale. Check www.bardavon.org for information. Being away next week, I will unfortunately miss the entire Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, but there’s no reason why you should miss such events as excerpts from Scott Joplin’s rarely-heard opera “Treemonisha” or an African-themed performance of Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love.” You can get lots of information at www.phoeniciavoicefest.com. 

Judith Kerman will be covering that Festival for us, as she did with last week’s Aston Magna concert. The last concert in that series will feature the legendary ragtime pianist Joshua Rifkin in a very different role, playing Beethoven’s Horn Sonata and Schubert songs at the Hudson Area Library on August 2; check www.astonmagna.org for details. I did get to Aston Magna’s Purcell celebration at Time & Space Limited in Hudson on July 19. It drew a good audience, although obviously not as good as the one reviewed below. The five instrumentalists gave an expressive performance of Purcell’s Sonata V from the Sonatas in Four Parts, and harpsichordist Michael Sponseller played Purcell’s Suite in F with fine style and excellent embellished repeats. The rest of the program was all vocal music, mostly from Purcell’s “semi-operas” (plays with music) but also including the final scene from the magnificent opera “Dido and Aeneas.” An account of all the virtues of these performances would take another page of text, so I’ll just have to say that soprano Kristen Watson, mezzo-soprano Deborah Rentz-Moore, tenor Jason McStoots, and baritone David McFerrin were all splendid. 

My colleague Judith Kerman writes:

Aston Magna’s July 26 performance at Hudson’s refurbished Hudson Hall was by any measure a success. The turnout, estimated at 150, supports Aston Magna’s decision to seek more supportive venues than Bard College. The overexposed Pachelbel Canon and its Gigue in D major opened the program, refreshed by expert performance, the lighter texture of period instruments and the less familiar Gigue. Vivaldi’s Concert for sopranino recorder in A Minor followed; Aldo Abreu’s brilliant performance on the tiny sopranino won raves, which he rewarded with a solo encore. The popular Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major was wonderfully executed by the small ensemble, highlighted by Christopher Krueger on baroque flute.

The second half of the program began with the Bach “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother,” well performed by Peter Sykes on an excellent large harpsichord. As Daniel Stepner explained in his preconcert talk, the very limited dynamic range of the harpsichord leads expert performers to provide emotional nuance in other ways. Mr. Sykes varied his tempo for dramatic effect. (Mr. Stepner’s informative talk would have benefitted from a microphone.) For Villa‑Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5,” Kristin Watson replaced the ailing Dominique LaBelle. Ms. Watson’s silvery, agile voice was perfect for this music, and her clear diction mastered the Aria’s rapid Portuguese. The light ensemble (three violins, viola, cello and violone) created an amazingly effective alternative to the usual eight cellos.

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