Friday, 17 May 2013

Live Review: Canzona - St. John Passion (March 24th 2013)

St. John Passion
Westminster United Church
March 24th 2013
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

Canzona’s 2012-13 season came to a satisfying close with a powerful performance of J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion at Westminster United Church. The Passion, an apt selection for a concert on Palm Sunday, featured an impressive cast of soloists alongside the MusikBarock Ensemble, all ably conducted by Canzona’s Artistic Director Henry Engbrecht.

The Passion depicts the events leading up to the death of Jesus Christ as narrated by an Evangelist, here portrayed by promising young tenor Jan van der Hooft. Baritones Mel Braun, Kris Kornelson and Stephen Haiko – as Jesus, Pontius Pilate and Simon Peter respectively – rounded out the main cast. While Bach’s work was written in German, the program included an extensive translation of the text, which greatly enhanced audience members’ appreciation of the piece.

Van der Hooft’s performance was the highlight of the evening; he conveyed intense and often harrowing emotions with near-perfect diction and impeccable tone.  Braun’s sonorous voice and authoritative presence made him well-suited to the role of Christ.

An ambitious undertaking, the concert featured many of Canzona’s members at their finest. Sarah Kirsch was captivating as a young believer with “I follow thee also,” her joyous soprano soaring to the rafters of Westminster Church. Kornelson was particularly strong as Pilate, his expansive and versatile rendition perfectly capturing the character’s constant emotional dilemmas. Alto Kirsten Schellenberg’s voice was gorgeously-shaded and heavy with feeling as she echoed Christ’s final words, “It is accomplished.”
Marni Enns had perhaps the most poignant aria of the night; over delicate flute and oboe, she imbued a proclamation of Christ’s death, “Dissolve then, heart, in floods of tears,” with exquisite and heartbreaking sorrow. The MusikBarock Ensemble, featuring some of the finest chamber musicians in the city, provided masterful support for the vocalists.

The audience was invited to participate in the performance during two sections of the work. Coached before the concert by Engbrecht, those present were able to display their vocal skills and express the words of the Passion in its original language. The joined voices of the chorus and a remarkably capable congregation resonated throughout the venue and allowed one to connect with Bach’s masterpiece on a more intimate and personal level.

Live Review: Shanghai Quartet (April 6th 2013)

Shanghai Quartet
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
April 6th 2013
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

There are few better ways to end a season of a chamber music concert series than with a captivating performance by the Shanghai Quartet. The internationally-renowned string ensemble’s recital capped off Virtuosi Concerts’ 2012-13 season and also marked the Quartet’s thirtieth anniversary since its formation in 1983. The series’ Artistic Director Harry Strub noted that Virtuosi had spent the past ten years in a process to get the ensemble to perform in Winnipeg, making the evening feel even more celebratory. The Quartet – Weigang Lei and Yi-Wen Jiang on violin, Honggang Li on viola, and Nicholas Tsavaras on cello – thrilled a packed-to-the-rafters Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall with a display of flawless musicianship paired with a delightful sense of humour.

The Quartet opened with Haydn’s jubilant Quartet No. 53 in D major, Op. 64, No. 5, a piece frequently referred to as “The Lark Quartet” for its light and easygoing nature. Opening movement Allegro moderato’s smooth, effortless harmonies immediately won over the audience, with the sweet and golden-hued tones of Adagio cantabile and Menuetto allegretto only further enchanting listeners. Lei’s versatile violin and Tzavaras’ sonorous cello were particularly impressive in the passionate Finale vivace, where the four performers’ strokes and plucks created a thrilling mosaic.

Shostakovich’s dramatic Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 further confirmed the Quartet’s musical gifts in a more emotionally-varied piece. Li showed great sensitivity during the subdued, waltz-like Moderato con moto, and the ensemble’s skillful navigation of Lento – Allegretto’s hairpin shifts in mood and tempo was superb.

Dvorák’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, Op. 105 tied together a subtle theme of the evening – namely, a journey through several centuries of violin music, from ‘grandfather’ Haydn to his modern successors. Adagio ma non troppo – Allegreo appassionato featured Jiang’s deft, expressive bow work as well as gorgeous pizzicato by Tzavaras. The romantic Lento e molto cantabile was also a highlight, a change in pace prior to the demanding and energetic Allegro ma non troppo, which grew in intensity before culminating in one final, triumphant flourish.

It seemed as if the Quartet had finished for the evening, but after a sustained standing ovation and plenty of cheers from a smitten audience, the ensemble returned to the stage to express their appreciation with a truly special encore: an arrangement by Jiang of a Chinese folk song about a shepherd searching for his lost love. The wistful and highly evocative piece, inspired by the vast steppes of China’s northern provinces, was more than one could ask for.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Live Review: Reiner Trio (March 30th 2013)

Reiner Trio
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
March 30th 2013
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

On Saturday night, the Montreal-based Reiner Trio – violinist Laurence Kayaleh, cellist Elizabeth Dolin and pianist Paul Stewart – gave Virtuosi Concerts patrons the opportunity to hear some rarely-heard pieces, all by Slavic composers. The evening was just what the doctor ordered for a seemingly interminable winter in which the trio’s performances, so full of energy and life, were enthusiastically welcomed by the Winnipeg audience.

Stewart introduced Rachmaninoff’s Trio elegiaque No. 1 in G minor, a dramatic and emotional start to what would prove to be an immensely satisfying program, with a nod to the work’s elusive origins – the piece was written in the last decade of the 19th century and went virtually unnoticed until 1947, when its first edition was finally published.

Needless to say, it was a thrill to hear. Kayaleh and Dolin’s urgent strings played both with and against Stewart’s versatile piano, which navigated the piece’s countless twists and turns with flair and ease. Each artist alone seemed to be an organic extension of their instrument; together, the musicians’ chemistry was magical.    

The intelligently-structured program gave each artist the chance to showcase their abilities both individually and within the context of a trio. Stewart and Dolin came together on Chopin’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 65, which the composers collaborated on with, and dedicated the piece to, cellist Auguste Franchomme. The opening Allegro moderato established a dialogue between the two instruments, Stewart’s nimble piano lines rising to meet Dolin’s dulcet cello tones as the two began an exquisitely-composed courtship. Scherzo – allegro con brio, which incorporated elements of a mazurka – a nod to Chopin’s Polish heritage – featured beautifully complex and full-bodied work from Dolin, who captured the uniquely modern style and spirit of the movement.

Largo, a love duet between two instruments, was romantic and delightful; Stewart’s melodious piano played the part of a shy gentleman resolved to win the heart of the headstrong woman embodied by Dolin’s cello, a quest fulfilled in the movement’s final, gorgeous, faded notes. No sooner had the audience caught their breath than the duo surged forward into the lively Finale – Allegro, in which dazzling bow-work and richly-hued piano built toward a triumphant and ovation-worthy finish.

Kayaleh joined Stewart for an exceptional rendition of Dvorák’s Four Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 75. These “four little jewels,” as the violinist described them in an introduction, demonstrated Kayaleh’s impressive range and intuitive command of her instrument. She made the agile and powerful rhythms of Allegro maestoso come alive, mesmerized the audience during the extraordinary Allegro appassionato a movement that concluded with a dazzling display of pizzicato – and, over Stewart’s fluid piano, brought the intricate melancholy of Larghetto to a place of pure emotion.

The trio came together once more for Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32. Stewart noted that the Russian composer wrote the piece two years after his pupil Rachmaninoff’s death and dedicated it to the memory of cellist Karl Davydov. Arensky’s work fittingly contained a breadth of moods and textures representative of a lifetime. Scherzo – Allegro molto featured a ‘music box’ texture, a light, playful feel and brisk tempo, whereas Elegia – Adagio, an elegy for Davydov, was mournful and touching. All this led to the energetic Finale – Allegro non troppo, where violin and cello sang together as the three players raced forward to the piece’s – and the evening’s – stunning close. Regrettably, no encore was offered.  

Update 14/06/13: You can listen to CBC Radio 2's recording of this concert here.