by Michael Caruso
Chestnut Hill’s Woodmere Art Museum presented West Mt. Airy pianist Marja Kaisla in recital Sunday afternoon, Dec. 9. The Finnish-born virtuoso played a program of music by George Gershwin and Serge Rachmaninoff for an audience that was the largest so far this season.
Kaisla devoted the first half of the recital to Rachmaninoff and then shifted gears for Gershwin. She opened with Rachmaninoff’s most famous solo piano work, “Prelude in C-sharp minor; The Bells of Moscow,” catching its evocation of the ringing of the countless bells in Moscow’s Russian Orthodox cathedrals. She sensitively voiced the score’s parallel chords to imitate the chanting of monks and colored the sonorous double octaves to surround the chant with the magical tolling of the hours.
The Gershwin portion of the recital began with Kaisla playing seven of the American master’s own solo piano transcriptions of his popular songs. Although I found her interpretations a tad too heavy on the side of romantic legato and a tad weak on rhythmic accentuation, Kaisla played all seven with sensitivity.
I was less convinced by Kaisla’s rendition of Gershwin’s solo transcription of his most famous work, “Rhapsody in Blue.” Originally scored for piano and jazz band by Ferde Grofe (of “Grand Canyon Suite” fame) for Paul Whiteman in 1924, it’s most often heard nowadays in its arrangement for piano and symphony orchestra. Although Gershwin did the solo version himself, it remains a problematic score because there’s simply too much music equally divided between band-or-orchestra and piano to successfully compress it all into a solo piano part. It’s virtually impossible for a pianist to vary her touch so broadly as to differentiate what was meant for piano from what was meant for the other instruments. Plus there’s always the temptation to veer in the direction of Lisztian virtuosity in place of Gershwin’s unique Tin Pan Alley-style of American Jazz.
Once again, Kaisla imposed too much romantic legato on the music, offering smooth lyricism to the exclusion of sharp rhythmic thrusts and tart textures. There were also moments when the pianist was dealing with either minor memory lapses or technical mishaps. Hers is an interpretation that still needs more thought and work. It was a good performance, of course, but one that wasn’t up to Kaisla’s own standard as an international concert artist, a standard evident during her playing of Rachmaninoff’s “Corelli Variations.”
The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented the vocal quartet Anonymous 4 Friday night, Dec. 14, in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. The church’s imposing Victorian Romanesque sanctuary was filled with nearly 1,000 music-lovers eager to hear “A Virgin Unspotted: Medieval & Traditional Christmas Songs for Mary,” a seasonal program with historic import.
Comprised of Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genesky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, Anonymous 4 is the reigning master of this medieval repertoire, much of it derived from manuscripts and codices (ancient or medieval books) that require historically informed and musically sensitive reconstructions to render it suitable for performance. Going far beyond that, however, Anonymous 4 gave renditions Friday night that were models of technical perfection and interpretive commitment. Pitch, blend, balance and diction were immaculate.
Expert projection enabled the singers to fill Holy Trinity’s wide-open space with warm resonance. The quartet easily essayed the angular harmonies, jagged rhythms and extravagant melodies without a hitch. More to the point, the quartet sang with an intense passion founded on aesthetic sophistication – and held its audience in rapt attention from start to finish through scores hailing from England, France, Spain and even colonial America.