Review: a polished Prokofiev recital by David Jalbert

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Another night, another top-notch piano performance in Ottawa.

Fans of big, old-school virtuoso pianism have been spoiled lately, with Yefim Bronfman,  Charles Richard-Hamelin,  and David Jalbert all playing here within a few days of each other.

Jalbert, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, was recently named one of the 25 greatest Canadian pianists of all time by the CBC. Jalbert isn’t as well-known as some of the other names on that list. He rarely tours internationally, teaches a lot (this summer he’s at Pianofest in the Hamptons and Orford, among others), and records judiciously.

Yet another product of the extraordinarily successful pianist “factory” that is Marc Durand’s studio at Université de Montréal, Jalbert possesses consummate technique, enlightened musicianship, and a vast curiosity. All three were on display Friday at his all-Prokofiev recital at Southminster United (Jalbert repeated the program in Montreal on Sunday).   Continue reading

Artsfile: a new online arts magazine for Ottawa.

This week saw the launch of Artsfile, a new online magazine showcasing the best in Ottawa’s performing arts scene. The features and reviews are by me and three of my former Ottawa Citizen colleagues: Peter Simpson (visual arts), Patrick Langston (theatre), and Peter Robb (editor-in-chief). The publication owes its existence to James and Sarah Baxter–James also publishes iPolitics, while Sarah is involved as a volunteer and fundraiser in several local arts organizations.

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I’ll continue to review some concerts exclusively here, but I’ll be cross-posting my Artsfile reviews, beginning with Wednesday’s NACO concert featuring the luminous young Quebec pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin. Here’s an excerpt:

“Charles Richard-Hamelin is arguably the best and most complete pianist under the age of 30 in Canada. He combines monster virtuosity with keen intelligence and exceptionally sensitive, imaginative musicality. His headline-making silver medal at the 2015 Chopin competition in Warsaw certainly boosted his career, but unlike some big international prize winners, he hasn’t burned out early. His work ethic and consistency have allowed him to maintain the momentum.

On Wednesday, Richard-Hamelin played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with NACO, under the guest baton of Carlo Rizzi. This excitable Italian conducts with enthusiasm, grace, and beautifully clear technique. He doesn’t over-intellectualize the music, but gives everything a narrative, a sense of dance, and an emotional immediacy that reflect his impeccable opera house credentials.

To date, I’ve mostly heard Richard-Hamelin in big Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire. His Mozart was glorious: supple, winsome, warmly lit from within, delicate but never feeble.”

Read the complete review here.

 

Bronfman slays in Prokofiev 2 at NACO

You can keep your Rach 3: in my books, the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto is the hardest in the standard repertoire. It’s relentless, merciless, bone-grinding, with a sadistic, 10-minute long cadenza at the end of the first movement and a video-game speed scherzo in which the soloist literally never pauses for breath. Wednesday evening at NACO, Yefim Bronfman made it all seem effortless.

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Comrade, do you even Prokofiev 2?

 

Bronfman is an anomaly, a beast, a demigod. The kind of pianist who makes other pianists weep with despair and shake their heads in bewildered admiration. Yes, he played the Prokofiev with superhuman speed and power, but also clarity, articulation, wit, voluptuous colour and line. He muscled the piece into submission, but with a style that was more Sumo wrestler than bouncer: finesse and strategy as well as brawn.

I always love watching the contrast between Bronfman’s broad, motionless back and the lethal blur of his hands. More excitable  young pianists would do well to follow his zen example.

The young Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha is guesting this week. European critics have been raving about him, and I’ve heard the NACO musicians are fans. they must be seeing something different: from the hall I found his body language strangely off-putting: square, stiff, and erratic.  But you can’t argue with the results he gets: Glazunov’s Concert Waltz was warmly lyrical, sweet but not syrupy.

In the Prokofiev he kept a taut connection to Bronfman’s blazing speed; especially through the clattering machinery of the second movement. But I found Valčuha’s exaggerated, frantic movements visually distracting; he isn’t the most discreet partner.

After the Prokofiev’s final kaboom, Bronfman dialed down the adrenaline with a reading of Schumann’s Arabeske that was a miracle of delicacy, reverent tone and refined sentiment.

 

Physical tics aside, Valčuha produced an emotionally dignified Brahms Symphony No. 2 that did not lack for verve or exaltation. The easygoing pace of the opening Allegro still had forward movement thanks to lush phrasing and generous breath . I like this conductor’s judicious tempi, subtle dynamics and artfully calibrated climaxes—the stately Adagio and gently lilting, almost playful Allegretto were both just so. Only the finale was a little quick and light; the exuberant, “peasant” quality of the music was overly polished.

The orchestra sounded wonderful, with mannerly woodwinds, vibrantly expressive strings and stentorian brass. Principal horn Larry Vine enjoyed a particularly good night.