Sunday, April 6, 2008

Back to the Academy

During last week's concert by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields it seemed, at times, as if St. Martin wasn't just in the fields but also in a kind of time warp: here on the stage of Symphony Hall was the same lustrous, lovely sound I remembered from their classic recordings of the 60's and 70's, when they led what has since become known as "the Baroque revival." Here too was legendary founder Neville Marriner (at left), the man himself, due to the unexpected illness of conductor/pianist Murray Perahia. And I'm happy to report that the ancient Marriner (sorry, I just had to) looked ruddily vital and pleased as punch to be on the podium - almost as pleased as we were to have him there.

I'm not sure by what sonic alchemy the Academy produces its musical signature - that full, ravishing tone that almost pours forth from a gently sculpted architecture, but never quite; I'm simply happy to report that the mystery is still with us, and still as subtly ravishing as ever. The secret, of course, must lie somewhere in the Academy's sense of ensemble, and indeed, the string players were constantly checking each other during the performance, the way great quartets do; whether this means the conductor is no longer the focus (the group was originally "conductorless"), or that Marriner's sensibility is by now ingrained in the orchestra's bones, I don't know and don't care. I only know that throughout its opening Mozart symphony (No. 31), the Academy played with a cohesive, handsome balance that I've never heard the BSO achieve.

Of course a lot of musical water has gone under the bridge since the Academy (at left) and its style coalesced; the "Baroque revival" has morphed into the early music movement; and so the Academy's chamber-orchestra "concept," if you will, straddles what has now become something of a cultural divide. So I was eager to hear their handling - on modern instruments - of Haydn's "London" symphony (No. 104). The performance was gorgeous, although its golden sonorousness was most compelling in the dramatic adagio and andante sections than in the lighter allegro portions - perhaps because original instruments are, in the end, simply more sparkling than modern ones, and my ear has become "trained" to them. Still, Marriner brought infectious spirit to the "Spiritoso" finale, and it was hard not to be charmed.

As I felt I should have been by the lovely Yuja Wang, a virtuosic young Chinese pianist (at right). Ms. Wang looked stunning in two strapless gowns, one in shimmering blue, the other in revolutionary red; and her speed, agility, and structural rigor were beyond astonishing - when other pianists (even legendary ones like Horowitz) ramp up to Ms. Wang's preferred cruising speed, notes tend to either go muddy or missing, but here the keys struck were all the right ones, only at velocities that meant Ms. Wang's fingers were frequently a blur. (There are several videos on Youtube - including one I posted below - to bear testament to this; one is even titled "House of Flying Fingers".)

But alas, in the end I may have admired Ms. Wang - she is "awesome," if ever a pianist was - but I wasn't charmed. Yes, she has both speed and command, and these things are thrilling, but claims of her musicality seem to me exaggerated (at least so far). Ms. Wang is in some ways a prisoner of her own technique: although she can draw melancholic color from the keyboard when she slows down, once she hits the gas she loses all individual personality and tends to hammer, albeit accurately, which put her rather at odds with the style of the Academy. And she's drawn, a bit naively, to "showing us what she can do," instead of what the music can do; her cadenza in the Piano Concerto No. 24, for instance, seemed to dump Mozart for Liszt (even though the orchestra was still playing Mozart). She was most at home in the propulsive allegro of Mendelssohn's Sinfonia No. 10, which she played with brio - and her heart was obviously in her encore, the crazed Volodos transcription of Mozart's "Turkish Rondo" (again, see video below) which was dazzling fun (as encores should be), but could hardly be described as having much depth. Of course someday she may find her own voice; and then Ms. Wang will really be something to hear.

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