25 December 2008

IN MEMORIAM: Eartha Kitt, sultry songstress (17 January 1927 - 25 December 2008)

Again were the shining lights of this Christmas dimmed upon receipt of word of the passing of legendary American songstress Eartha Kitt. A provocative woman who was unafraid of controversy (as she displayed with her famous anti-Vietnam comments, made at a White House luncheon, that allegedly made Lady Bird Johnson cry), she perfected her blend of an exotically beautiful physique with a voice like flowing lava to rise from humble beginnings in South Carolina to epitomize the trend-setting Broadway diva.

Without question, Kitt's was not a great voice; certainly not after the manner of the ripely beautiful sounds of Della Reese or Etta James. Kitt was unquestionably a great singer, however: when she sang a song like 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,' the haunting huskiness of her timbre was the smoke that tangled around the listener until he inhaled deeply, drawing her in. Rather than sacrificing her individuality for the 'bright lights' as did so many of her contemporaries, Kitt proved that her unique spirit shone brighter than half-hearted conventionality.

As with Callas, after every analysis and attempt to dissect, interpret, and classify her, she remained simply and gloriously Eartha Kitt.

15 December 2008

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Recital by Joshua Smith, Flute, and Jory Vinikour, Harpsichord (First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland, OH; 12 December 2008)

There is an ironic perversion at the heart of serious music, in that a significant component of the collective thrill enjoyed by an audience is derived from the uncertainty inherent in music-making. The wonder of witnessing a performance by a great artist at the height of his powers, confirming his reputation and giving the audience a glimpse into a private world of genius and creativity, is matched on a darker level by the secret lust for failure, for the toppling of an idol and an atypically poor performance that proves just as memorable as a remarkable one. Among singers, for instance, an unfortunate element of the mystique of Maria Callas is that, particularly during the last years of her career, she was as likely to be ‘off’ as to be ‘on,’ and however unfair to the artist this induces among her listeners an euphoric sense of danger, of walking at the edge without looking down. There were troublesome wobbles to be heard in the early days of her career, and even during the last performances of Norma in Paris, heralding her retirement from the stage, there were moments of extraordinary poignancy and unexpected instances in which the top C’s came easily, freely, and securely. Through all of these triumphs and flaws, she was Callas, and that was enough, whether one loved or hated her. It is often said now, especially by aging music-lovers, that there are sadly few great artists upon the world’s stages in our twenty-first century, and that these few too often fall victim to media hype that overinflates their genuine worth and insufficient techniques that ultimately betray their efforts. There are astonishingly gifted artists among us, however, even when they are not the darlings of multimillion-dollar media conglomerates, and there are few greater rewards for true music-lovers than witnessing an occasion on which great artists give of their best and achieve the sort of Orphic eloquence that has shaped music through centuries and millennia. An occasion of this rare mingling of virtuosity, artistic integrity, and uncompromised beauty occurred in Cleveland on the evening of 12 December, when Joshua Smith, world-renowned principal flautist of the Cleveland Orchestra, and Jory Vinikour, one of the world’s most talented harpsichordists, presented a duo recital built upon sonatas for flute and harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach at the First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland.

Even before addressing the performances by Smith and Vinikour, mention must be made of the two remarkable instruments placed at Mr. Vinikour’s disposal for this performance (and for a pair of recording projects involving Smith and Vinikour completed in the days prior to the public performance). Employed as the ‘obbligato’ instrument in the sonatas with flute, Mr. Vinikour played a French-style double manual harpsichord built in 1972 by Philip Cucchiara and David Pierce and recently restored and improved by Mr. Cucchiara. In his solo numbers, Mr. Vinikour played a remarkable Reinhard von Nagel/Dowd harpsichord, also a double manual instrument in the French style, constructed in Paris in 1978 and also recently restored and modified by Mr. Cucchiara. The most telling testament to Mr. Cucchiara’s achievements with these instruments was Mr. Vinikour’s performance (as his solo encore) of Bach’s Fantasia in C minor (BWV 906), a splendid piece with often startling chromaticism that I have played myself on three occasions (on three different instruments, two of them modern constructions and the third a restored ‘antique’ instrument) and often heard performed by harpsichordists and pianists on a variety of differing instruments. In Mr. Vinikour’s performance, superbly played, it was astonishing to hear the chromatics rendered with such clarity and brilliance. A danger of harpsichords is that, even with their ‘plucked’ mechanism, articulation can be imprecise, resulting in a sound—particularly in bravado passages and in large spaces such as First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland—that blunts the focus of chromatic and fugal passages, sometimes disrupting the natural pace of the music and obscuring details. The clarity of these instruments was seconded by distinct timbres, both of expressive beauty. The quality of the workmanship evident in these instruments indicates not only a supreme mastery of the technical aspects of instrument-building and maintenance but also a sovereign understanding of the needs of a performer, the requirements of the composers who composed for the instrument, and the interpretive depths of their music. Carefully tuned by Mr. Cucchiara to adhere to the temperament presumably employed by Bach, these instruments were of a level of excellence that can scarcely have been matched since the greatest masters were at work in the eighteenth century.

Unless Tamino, ‘Caro nome,’ or Lucia’s mad scene is involved, I confess that my acquaintance with the flute repertory is embarrassingly slight. This was a performance that not only increased my embarrassment but inspired me to dedicate myself to expanding my awareness of this lovely instrument. Celebrated throughout the world as one of the preeminent flautists of our time and principal flautist of the Cleveland Orchestra since his appointment by Christoph von Dohnányi in 1990 (at the advanced age of twenty!), Joshua Smith gave his first public performance in tandem with Mr. Vinikour in two Bach flute sonatas, the first in G minor (BWV 1020; widely attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach but likely composed by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and merely ‘corrected’ by the more famous father) and the second in A major (BWV 1032, which exists only in autograph sources that are incomplete). Mr. Smith’s playing throughout was of extraordinary technical fluency, vitality, and flexibility. Most impressive was the expressive quality of his playing, with amazingly long-breathed phrasing worthy of Montserrat Caballé. For his encore, Mr. Smith joined Mr. Vinikour in performing the often-heard Siciliana from Bach’s E-flat major flute sonata (BWV 1031), a movement of rapt beauty that Mr. Smith played with hypnotically exquisite tone that suggested an operatic aria for a faithful shepherd lamenting the loss of his true love. There was never a wrong note, a wrong gesture, or a wrong inflection, and Mr. Smith’s use of a wooden mouthpiece brought a refreshing sense of the Baroque without the wilting timbre and suspect intonation of a ‘period’ instrument. This was a sublime performance that pulsed with musicality, profound insight, and a joy in playing that brought a wonderfully fresh feeling to this ‘early’ music.

In addition to complementing Mr. Smith with accompaniment of equal elegance and sensitivity, Mr. Vinikour offered as evidence of his incredible skills performances of Händel’s G-major Chaconne (HWV 437), Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 895), and three pieces (‘La Forqueray,’ ‘La Médée,’ and ‘Chaconne’) from Jacques Duphly’s Suite in F. In all of these pieces, there was never the sense of hearing ‘old’ music composed for an antiquated instrument. Mr. Vinikour’s greatest accomplishment, in my opinion, is his ability to unite his seemingly insurmountable technique with an inner feeling for the emotional impact of the music he plays that belies the somewhat impersonal response of the harpsichord. Few artists cause an audience to reassess its collective understanding of an instrument, but Mr. Vinikour achieves this for the harpsichord with his playing, historically-informed but heart-inspired.

The collaboration between these two exceptional artists, aided by the dedication and impeccable achievements of Mr. Cucchiara, was an experience of tremendous power. The essence of chamber music is its ability to transform an ensemble of instruments into a single voice, singing of private emotions. Few performances achieve this with the intensity displayed in this recital from first note to last, and few ‘voices’ join in duet more seamlessly and meaningfully than Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Vinikour’s.