Saless’ BCO and Mina Gajić’s 1895 piano give promise for the future
By Peter Alexander
Last night (Oct. 30) the Boulder Chamber Orchestra (BCO) and conductor Bahman Saless presented what may the most important debut of the musical season in Boulder. At 120, the debutante sounded wonderful.
In case you didn’t know, the “debutante” was a piano, made in Paris in 1895 by the firm of Sébastien Érard. It was played by the evening’s soloist, pianist Mina Gajić, who purchased the piano in Amsterdam in 2014 and brought it to Boulder. The concert was the first ever performance on the instrument in the U.S.
A superb pianist, Gajić gave memorable performances of two works—one written before the piano was built, and one after. The earlier work was the Malédiction (Curse) for piano and strings of Franz Liszt; the later was Young Apollo for piano, string quartet and string orchestra by Benjamin Britten.
“We thought it would be an interesting juxtaposition to have a piano that fits right in the middle of these pieces—Liszt in 1833, Britten in 1939, and the piano from 1895,” Gajić said.
The straight-strung Érard piano, with strings that run parallel in all registers, has a marvelously clear and transparent sound. (For more details of the piano’s construction, read my earlier post previewing the concert.) The sound is particularly striking in the highest register: bright, pure and clean, without ever sounding pingy or losing a delicious piano sound. The middle register sounds more like a modern piano, but one that is remarkably present.
My only reservation might be the bass, which is powerful and hard-edged, and when heard alone almost metallic in its timbre. Nonetheless, the bass supports and blends with chords in all registers, adding weight to the sound without turning it thick or murky.
But what is most striking is the clarity and penetration of the sound in all registers. The sound was never swallowed up by the full string orchestra, in even the loudest passages. Every chord throughout the range was clear, always audible, always transparent. Even though the instrument is seven feet—in contrast to today’s Steinway D and Kawai EX at nine feet, or the Bösendorfer 290 Imperial at nine feet six inches—the Érard can be plenty loud, without any distortion or loss of sound quality.
But the piano, however marvelous, doesn’t play itself. Gajić had the apparently effortless control of the music that characterizes every true virtuoso, in both the Liszt and the Britten.
Young Apollo is an odd piece, one that was written very early in the composer’s career and then withdrawn after its first performance. It was never heard again until after Britten’s death in 1976. It is hard to find in the score signs of the Britten one recognizes from his later and well known operas. It is full of bustle and fanfare, with declamatory string chords juxtaposed with surging scales running the full length of the piano.
Gajić and the BCO gave a robust performance. If the piece was not quite as nutty as Saless suggested in his remarks, it was pleasingly off-center, and played with conviction. One might consider the piano a little antiquated for a 1939 piece, but it was more than up to Britten’s quirky demands. The opening scales were the perfect introduction to the piano, allowing one to hear the sound from the bottom to the clear, bell tones that capped each run.
The title of Liszt’s Malédiction originally referred to only the first section of the piece, which contains a great deal of contrast along with its pianistic fireworks. It is likely that the pianos of 1833 couldn’t quite provide what Liszt wanted in this score, but by 1895 Érard pianos were up to the task.
Once again, Gajić and the orchestra gave a very convincing interpretation of a piece that is not heard often. Gajić tossed off all of Liszt’s virtuoso passages—written, after all, for his own showy concerts—with confidence. The piano was never covered or dominated by the orchestra in this well balanced performance.
Intermission saw audience members surrounding and photographing the piano, which obviously stirred great interest. It is unfortunate if the rest of the concert was slightly overshadowed by the instrument, because Saless led incisive, controlled performances throughout. The program, titled “Spook Symphony,” included several pieces selected for Halloween.
The concert opened with Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546, which begins with an ominous C minor that suggests threat and fear. The piece was written for string quartet, but the full sound of the BCO string section multiplied the sense of menace in the Adagio. On the other side of the same coin, the fugue occasionally suffered from the lower parts not being as nimble and precise in section as they could be with the single players of a quartet.
After intermission, Saless and the BCO presented the one definitively spooky piece of the “Spook Symphony,” Bernard Herrmann’s score to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho. Under Saless, the performance achieved all the menace and tension that Herrmann was aiming for. The parts were carefully balanced, with interior lines and a repeated three-note motive carefully brought out from the texture.
This was clearly an audience favorite. I saw knowing, if slightly guarded, smiles and heard a slight nervous chuckle when the slashing chords of the famous shower scene were played.
Happily, the concert ended with a piece that did not leave audience members afraid to venture out into the dark. Danish composer Carl Nielsen’s early Little Suite for Strings—as Op. 1 it was his first published work—opens with a slightly sinister Prelude, but proceeds with movements that are much more cheerful. The Intermezzo practically danced along, and the Finale ended comfortably. Saless elicited very good string playing and a true ensemble performance from the section.
In all, this was a memorable concert that promises well for the BCO’s season, and for all future appearances of Gajić and her historic piano.