by Michael Caruso

Former Chestnut Hill resident Ignat Solzhenitsyn returned to Philadelphia Friday, Jan. 12, to present a solo piano recital under the auspices of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The event took place in the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall in Society Hill and was heard by an enthusiastic audience that jammed the auditorium.

Solzhenitsyn chose a no-nonsense program that he played with such commanding interpretive conviction that even its (and his) serious demeanor were reasons for pleasure. In four selected Preludes and Fugues from Dmitri Shostakovich’s set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for Piano and Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat, D. 960 (Posthumous), the former music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia displayed a rock-solid digital technique fully at the service of an ever-more mature musician who continues to explore the internal inspiration for the music he performs.

Although Frederic Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff composed sets of Preludes for the piano in the 24 major and minor keys, it fell to Shostakovich to fully follow J.S. Bach’s lead to also compose 24 Fugues in those major and minor keys. Solzhenitsyn, both an alumnus and faculty member of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, chose No. 1 in C major, No. 8 in F-sharp minor, No. 19 in E-flat major and No. 24 in D minor for the first half of his recital.

Employing a vast variety of touches from seamless legato to clipped staccato, a broad range of dynamics from softest to loudest, and a flowing feel for which voice to emphasize from one measure to the next, Solzhenitsyn showcased these expansive miniatures in their proper context of harmonic adventure through melodic development.

He did much the same with the Schubert. One of the longest piano sonatas in the standard repertoire, it falls not all that short of Beethoven’s monumental “Hammerklavier” Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Opus 106. Schubert’s posthumous B-flat Sonata glows with a haunting melancholy of autumnal poignancy that must be kept under tight reins, or it runs amok in sentimentality. Its surprising harmonic contrasts must be kept subordinate to its lyrical narrative, both of which are underpinned by its pulsating rhythms.

Solzhenitsyn met the score’s challenges to offer an interpretation both convicted and probing.

BRITISH ISLES

Yannick Nezet-Seguin returned to the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra last weekend to lead the ensemble in a program of works composed by musicians who were either born British or who chose to become British. The concerts took place in the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall Jan. 11-13 and offered scores from the 18th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Falling into the first category of United Kingdom composers were the Englishman Benjamin Britten and the Scotsman James MacMillan. The former’s canon was represented by the “Four Sea Interludes” from his gritty 1945 opera, “Peter Grimes.” The latter was showcased by the exotic “A Scotch Bestiary” for organ and orchestra, commissioned by the BBC and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered in October of 2004.

The finest music heard during these concerts, however, was that composed by a musician neither born nor bred in England but the one who chose to spend the major portion of his career working there. George Frideric Handel was born in Germany in 1685, subsequently continued his musical studies in Italy, then finally moved to England when the Prince Elector of Hanover succeeded Queen Anne upon her death to become King George I of England, Scotland and Ireland as well as the British Empire.

It was there in 1717 that Handel composed three Suites in F major, D major and G major, to be performed as the King and his Court sailed down the River Thames on July 7 of that year. Along with “Music for the Royal Fireworks,” the “Water Music” is not only Handel’s most famous instrumental work, but both transcend their century’s stylistic limitations and are rightly considered among the greatest orchestral works ever composed.

If Handel hadn’t been a contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach (they were born the same year, with Handel outliving Bach by nine years), he would probably be considered with Ludwig van Beethoven as the two greatest classical composers of all time. It was Beethoven who said of Handel, “He is a master from whom we all can still learn.” It’s just that in the opinion of most classical musicians, J.S. Bach was the supreme master of them all.

All the same, that consideration, with which I agree, shouldn’t diminish the reverence with which we regard the operas, oratorios and instrumental music written by Handel. And when it comes to considering the sheer joy and pleasure particular scores inspire in us when we hear them performed, Handel’s “Water Music” has few peers and no superiors.

Which is why Nezet-Seguin deserves so much gratitude for rescuing the “Water Music” from the sole domain of period instrumental orchestras and retrieving it for the repertoire of modern instruments ensembles such as the Philadelphia Orchestra and their audiences. This is great music that deserves to be played by great musicians such as the Philadelphians. Handel was the finest orchestrator of the Baroque era. His scoring for strings, woodwinds and brass is the most forward looking of the 18th century. And who better to perform it than the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of their inspired maestro.

Nezet-Seguin will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra Jan. 18-20 in its first performances of Peter Maxwell Davies’ “An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise,” Max Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy” and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony No. 3. First associate concertmaster Juliette Kang will be the soloist in the Bruch. You can contact NOTEWORTHY at Michael-caruso@comcast.net. To read more of NOTEWORTHY, visit www.chestnuthilllocal.com/Arts/Noteworthy.

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