Friday, February 10, 2012


Obecní dům
February 8
Prague Conservatory
February 7

Playing faster than the eye can follow.

Itʼs been a brutal week in Prague, with arctic weather conditions keeping the streets nearly deserted. But the concert halls have been sizzling with very hot performances by visiting soloists.

The Russian/Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg opened a four-day visit with a commanding rendition of Shostakovichʼs Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 2 with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Playing so fast that his hands were sometimes a blur, Giltburg matched the martial pace and volume of the orchestra while bringing his own distinctive, elegant style to the piece.

The standard take on this concerto is that itʼs not virtuoso material. Shostakovich wrote it for his son Maximʼs 19th birthday in 1957, reportedly including several sets of finger exercises (in the form of complex scales and arpeggios) that he could never get Maxim to practice. But despite its uncharacteristically upbeat, light-hearted tone, the concerto is an incredibly demanding work, not least because the pianist has to shift from fiery attacks in the first and third movements to a tender lyricism in the second.

Giltburg pulled it off with aplomb, hammering out the clarion theme in the first movement, rippling like liquid over the shadings and textures of the second movement, and running with dazzling fluency from the low-end mutterings to the high-end fireworks of the finale. He stayed precise and focused throughout, never letting the uptempo, high-volume demands take the crisp, clear edge off his style. By the end, the brisk back-and-forth of Giltburg trading themes and melodies with the orchestra was exhilarating fun – not a sentiment one normally associates with Shostakovich.

Conductor Vladimír Válek maintained a perfect balance between the soloist and the orchestra, a quality that characterized the entire evening. His treatment of the opening piece, Haydnʼs Symphony No. 104, was a study in clarity and tempo, with a wonderfully silken feel from the strings. And he rendered the closing work, Janáčekʼs boisterous Taras Bulba, in vivid, almost florid colors, brewing seething undercurrents of battle beneath layers of romance, drama and tragedy.

But Giltburg was the star of the show, called back by both the audience and orchestra for two encores. He will have an even better opportunity to showcase his considerable talent in a recital at the Rudolfinum on Saturday night. If you are in Prague, donʼt miss it.

Hardy, outdoors and in.
British vocalist Rosemary Hardy spans an even broader range. At her performance with Prague Modern earlier in the week, she opened and closed with medieval sacred music, sounding like an angel on Hildegard von Bingenʼs Ave, generosa and even better from the back of the hall singing Beata viscera by the seminal 13th-century composer Perotinus.

The latter, with its extended notes and repeated melody, has some resonance with 20th-century music, which comprised the bulk of the program. Still, itʼs hard to recall another singer who could move so seamlessly from a medieval hymn to a piece like Luciano Berioʼs Sequenza III, an a capella stream of shrieks, squeals, snatches of song, paroxysms of laughter, yips, titters and childlike gestures. Composed in 1966, the Sequenza has been interpreted as the ravings of a madwoman. But Hardyʼs performance was exquisite, carefully measured and finely detailed.

Hardy chose the program for the evening, which included two additional vocal showpieces. The high, icy strains of Kurtágʼs Scenes from a Novel were a perfect match for the weather and a great demonstration of Hardyʼs versatility, with her alternately sharp and soothing vocals supported by tight ensemble work from violinist David Danel, bassist Ondřej Melecký and cimbalom player Daniel Skála. And the singer brought a lusty operatic touch to Ravelʼs erotically tinged Chansons madécasses, particularly in the opening duet with the cello.

Itʼs a shame so few people turned out to hear Hardy, who has collaborated with Kurtág, Ligeti, Párt and other modern composers, as well as major conductors like Pierre Boulez and Sir John Eliot Gardiner. While she may not be a household name, she is a smart, superb singer. And the perfect antidote for a case of cabin fever on a frigid winter night.

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To hear a performance of Berioʼs Sequenza III:

Photos: Giltburg/Eric Richmond; Hardy (bottom)/Sebastian Hoppe

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