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Emily Liz

Midori Visits Minnesota, Part II

July 17, 2010 at 4:53 PM

This is the second part of a two-part review of Midori's July 13th performance at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minnesota. Click here for the first part.

After intermission came Mario Davidovsky’s Duo Capriccioso. Before the performers came onstage, the resident piano lackey came out and disassembled the part of the piano underneath the music stand. So it was clear from the beginning that this was not your typical violin-piano duet. The piece was filled with a variety of novel violin and piano techniques, including - you guessed it - pizzicato inside the piano. It was interesting, to be sure, but at times I felt as if it was just a series of tricks. Gripping and atmospheric tricks, to be sure; but tricks nonetheless. I need to find a recording of the piece and listen to it a few times before passing final judgment; works that I’m not thrilled about at first hearing often later reveal previously unheard depths once I become more familiar with the score. Once again, Midori was committed to her performance a hundred percent. This music was obviously close to her heart and she was thrilled to share it with us, and that alone made me want to work as hard as I could to understand and appreciate it.
The last piece on the program, the Brahms third sonata, was actually the reason I wanted tickets for this concert in the first place. I instantly connected with this piece the first time I heard it, and to this day it’s still my favorite Brahms sonata - although, once again, like with the Ravel, I have never heard it performed live. The first recording I ever heard of it was David Oistrakh’s, with Vladimir Yampolsky on the piano. For some pieces, I don’t have a favorite recording; I’m happy with a wide variety of interpretations. With others, I find a recording that I fall in love with, and all subsequent versions feel a bit…wrong in comparison. The Oistrakh Brahms third is one of those recordings that I have completely and totally fallen in love with, and no other performance of the Brahms third satisfies me in quite the same way. Oistrakh’s warmth and sincerity fits in so perfectly with this intensely personal piece, and the slightly muffled sound quality of the older recording is just the icing on the cake.
No performance was going to live up to that one of Oistrakh’s for me, but Midori’s rendition was still very, very special nonetheless. In the first movement she brought a searing tone and a real rhythmic pulse, especially on those string-crossing passages that Oistrakh tended to linger over. Unfortunately there were moments, especially in the lower register, when her sound seemed to disappear into the piano texture. But this is nit-picking. It was extraordinarily beautiful and masterful playing.
The second movement was a real highlight of the entire concert. Finally hearing it live convinced me it must be one of the most beautiful things ever written for the violin. Midori left more space in between the notes than Oistrakh, to beautiful effect. Those yearning upward stretches in the violin - the whispered double-stopped thirds at the very end... As the music came to a gentle close, one could feel the silence just throbbing in the hall. And amazingly enough, that feeling didn’t release even after she finally took the bow off the strings; it lasted as she went into the third movement presto. That was pretty special. I’m quickly learning how an audience’s response is just as much of a part of the performance as what an artist does onstage. In a great performance, it really is a conversation without words.
Midori exploded through the double-stops in the last movement. Her sound, although always pretty and striking, remained a little bit small for my tastes, but once again, this is a nitpick. She obviously felt this music very deeply, and by the time that glorious F-sharp toward the end of the final movement - one of my favorite single notes in classical music - any reservations I might have had over a small tone were forgotten. I felt giddy with the beauty of Brahms, and that’s the definition of a great performance, right there.
There was a lengthy standing ovation. Finally she came, set the music-stand aside, and re-tuned. The del Gesu was being a tad picky and the crowd began to giggle. Finally she was satisfied and turned back to the audience. “We will play Souvenir of Moscow by Wieniawski,” she said. I wasn’t familiar with the Souvenir but the glorious thing about Wieniawski and Sarasate and Vieuxtemps is that you don’t really need to be familiar with them to fall in love with them. All those pyrotechnics - all that character - all the slides and various bow strokes… Talk about pieces that were written to be performed, as opposed to recorded! When she set the music stand aside and launched into those opening chords from memory, her sound totally changed. For the first time that night, I could firmly identify that instrument as a del Gesu, without a doubt. The sound just screamed stereotypical del Gesu - rich, throaty, a tad gritty, especially in the lower half. None of those characteristics were traits that I associated with Midori’s playing before, either in her recordings or during the rest of the recital. Was it the flashier repertoire, or the fact she was now playing from memory, or another reason altogether? I don’t know, but I heard a definite difference. As her fingers flashed up and down the fingerboard, I couldn't suppress a wry smile as I remembered that Wieniawski had played a concert with Wilma Norman-Neruda in Moscow, and, after picking a fight with a general when he tried to convince the audience he was the better player, was ordered out of the city. I haven’t been able to find when the Souvenir was written, but it has an early opus number (6), and I wonder if it was after this little altercation?
In my twelve years of playing, I had never heard a great violinist take on one of the great showpieces live. Let me tell you, the difference between a live performance of Wieniawski and a recorded performance is the difference between fried chicken and tofu. There is an element of spice, personality - even danger - that is totally absent from a recording. One knows that in a recording, the strings will never break, and the performer will never have a memory lapse, and they will always hit each and every note each and every time - that kind of thing. But there are no such assurances for live performances. The audience teams up psychologically with the player in the hopes that he or she will make it through the piece unscathed. That bond is an incredibly powerful one, and for the first time I really began to understand emotionally what made these traveling Victorian virtuosi so beloved by their audiences. Nowadays these “parlor pieces” are considered light fare, musically suspect, not serious enough, but they are such an important part of our art, and they are received so enthusiastically by audiences, that I personally don’t think a recital program is complete without one. I would have been delighted to see one in the main body of the program.
As you can imagine, the subsequent applause and whoops and hollers just about brought the house down. She came out to bow again and again, ever gracious. She was greeting people in the lobby afterward, and I got her autograph and a picture. Her writing was just as bold and confident as her onstage manner.
Now whenever I listen to that beautiful recording of the Chopin Nocturne from Carnegie Hall, I will remember the sweetness and delicacy and beauty of everything I heard Tuesday night. There is simply nothing else in life like seeing a great violinist play a live concert. Absolutely nothing at all.
Except…maybe seeing one of the greatest orchestras of our time playing two Beethoven symphonies. Which is what I get to see tomorrow, when the Minnesota Orchestra takes on the fourth and the seventh in the closing concert of the 2010 Minnesota Beethoven Festival.
After this, my last musical hurrah of the summer is Ehnes in the Chausson Poeme and the Bartok first concerto in Door County, Wisconsin, on August 21st. (And what a last hurrah it will be!) I'm particularly looking forward to the Bartok, as it was written for (surprise, surprise) a great female violinist named Stefi Geyer, with whom Bartok had fallen deeply in love. The concerto has a fascinating story behind it, and perhaps before the concert I will attempt to uncover some more information on Bartok and Ms. Geyer, and blog on the subject. Until then!

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on July 18, 2010 at 12:19 PM

Thanks Emily!!! and please, give us a compte-rendu about James Ehnes. They are so well written! Marc

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on July 18, 2010 at 4:31 PM

It could be that she changed her bow before going on stage...

Wish I have a chance to listen to great players live. I missed Sarah Chang and James Ehnes when they were performing in my country... :-(

From Emily Liz
Posted on July 19, 2010 at 2:59 PM

@ Marc - Thanks for your kind words. I'll try to write a review about Ehnes but I've seen times now over the years? eight?...and I'm always lost for words afterward. You'll see an example of this in my next blog entry when I write about the Minnesota Orchestra, who I saw yesterday. I have nothing to say about them except they're friggin' amazing! Unfortunately that does not make a good review, ha.

@ Casey - I'm sorry to hear that. I have been so fortunate this year to hear Midori and Ehnes within the space of eight weeks. I live in a city of 60,000 people that is two hours away from the nearest big metro area (Minneapolis-St. Paul). Few people from my town like to drive in Minneapolis St. Paul, as their drivers are comparatively fast and aggressive, so one has to pay for bus fare if you want to go to a concert. The cost of that adds up very quickly. Anyway, I have gone long periods of time without hearing the greats, and so I feel your pain! It is only by chance that the Beethoven Festival started up and brought these amazing artists within a short drive, and I'm so incredibly thankful for that. Hopefully you will get a chance to see some great artists in the future. Oh! And forgot to say, I wonder if you're right about the bow. That had never crossed my mind before but now I really wonder if that was the difference.

From Peter Kent
Posted on July 19, 2010 at 8:16 PM

Hi Emily....obviously taken with the recital of've demonstrated a highly acute sense of tone and the flavor of the performance.  There are many great violinists that simply don't exude this magic power at solo/sonata/show piece recitals. Without going on to list the bland, should you get the chance to attend one by Maxim Vengerov be sure to do so. He also is capable of mesmerizing an audience. A few years back, he was in Buffalo NY playing for his benefactor from the Strad Society and did a spectacular recital. After several encores, he asked for requests from the audience.....apologized that the accompanist was not prepared for everything.....but it turned out to be Stump The Fiddler, and within reason no one succeeded. He played at least 10 more of the standard show pieces....all from memory as was the entire recital......and his stage demeanor is also so the time he was playing a Strad. 

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