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The Rare and the Rarefied

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Starr Theater
08/08/2011 -  
Igor Stravinsky: Study for pianola – Fanfare for a New Theatre – Lied ohne Name – Epitaphium – Three Pieces for string quartet – Ragtime – Concertino – “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat major – Eight Instrumental Miniatures – Concerto for piano and winds

Peter Serkin (Pianist), Cory Smythe (Disklavier)
International Contemporary Ensemble, Pablo Heras-Casado (Conductor)

P. Heras-Casado (© David Martin Page

As the first contribution this year to the Mostly Mozart Festival, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) presented a program of all Stravinsky. But the Stravinsky-Mozart association (à la “Rake’s Progress”) was nowhere to be found.

Instead, this wonderful collection of rare and obscure Stravinsky was allied with Spain, Picasso and J.S. Bach. The revelations, though, were plainly Stravinsky himself.

Yes, the composer’s atonal period was reflected (exactly one minute, in his 12-tone Epitaphium), and his offbeat totally delightful jazzy period (Ragtime, so much more natural that his later forced Ebony Concerto). And with these were musical necklaces with the brightest jewels.

The Eight Instrumental Miniatures were based on a “simple” group of children’s pieces. Three pieces for String Quartet had shadows of the early ballets, and the masterpiece of the evening, his Concerto for Piano And Winds was crisp, percussive, with shadows of the Brandenburgs.

Who could have essayed such an eclectic group of semi-chamber music better than ICE? For one decade now, these virtuosi offered their talents with ultimate fungibility. And even when the ensembles were tiny–as the first works–ICE gave us a picture gallery of music.

The audience should have been warned not to applaud, but allow this virtual son et lumière 15 minutes to act on its own. First the spotlight on the instrument camouflaging as Stravinsky’s pianola. (That was cheating, Cory Smythe had recorded the piece on a disklavier, its piano “rolls” actually electronic data which could be fixed up to be perfect). Next the spotlight up to the balcony, where two trumpeters played a one-minute work. (Stravinsky’s short music makes Webern sound like Bruckner!)

Next, the spotlight went back with two bassoons playing a lugubrious Song Without Name. Then to a clarinet, flute and harp on stage performing a work–Epitaphium pour Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg–which takes longer to say than to play.

The volition of light and music came to a brief halt when the light switched to a wonderful string quartet played eight minutes of very Russian music.

With light and sound over, ICE players call came on stage with their meticulous Granada-born conductor, Pablo Heras-Casado offering an up-tempo Ragtime, an illusional piece of jazz. Like Picasso’s musical pictures, everything was just a little bit off, keeping us all on edge.

The Concertino was transparent, and first violin David Bowlin offered a cadenza played with almost frightening ease.

The second half started with a work I’d never heard before, the Eight Instrumental Pieces, disguised from the early piano pieces for children. Each member of ICE could offer their tiny cadenzas in turn. It was sheer delight.

P. Serkin (©Kathy Chapman)

But nothing–nothing!–in this collection of the rare and rarefied was more satisfying than Peter Serkin’s oh so sophisticated performance of the Concerto for Piano and Winds.

Mr. Serkin’s mastery of Messiaen and Schoenberg are so impressive that at first the Stravinsky seemed like child’s play. That was anything but true. Technically, the piece has its own difficulties. But stylistically, Messrs Serkin and Heras-Casado had to make a unified piece involving a variety of Baroque composers (Handel, Vivaldi, Bach of course), some jazz and–-like the Mozart of the Mainly Mozart Festival–changes of mood, dynamics and tempo.

Whew!! For those who missed this, ICE will return (as will I) for two concerts on August 11. They should not be missed.

Harry Rolnick



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