Zuzana Růžičková (1927-2017)

Zuzana Růžičková, the esteemed Czech harpsichordist, famed for her interpretations of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, has died at 90.

Born in Plzen (Pilsen) to a Jewish family, Růžičková was encouraged by her piano teacher to take up the harpsichord and planned to study with Wanda Landowska in Paris. Those plans were dashed by the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39.

In 1941, the 13-year-old Růžičková and her family were imprisoned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she was able to study with the composer Gideon Klein. She and her mother subsequently were sent to Auschwitz, worked as slave laborers in Hamburg and, shortly before the end of World War II, were sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they narrowly escaped extermination before the arrival of British and Canadian troops in April 1945.

Returning to Czechoslovakia, Růžičková studied at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and after earning a master’s degree became a member of its faculty. After the communist takeover of the country in 1948, she refused to join the party and was subject to close official scrutiny, as a Jew and potential dissident.

In 1952, she married the composer Victor Kalabis (1923-2006), who wrote a number of works for her.

Following her victory in the ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 1956, she was allowed to tour throughout Europe. In 1962, Růžičková and the conductor Václav Neumann founded the Prague Chamber Soloists. She performed extensively in chamber music, playing with violinist Josef Suk, cellists Janos Starker and Pierre Fournier, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and other leading musicians, and was for many years a featured soloist with the Czech Philharmonic.

Růžičková was a prominent artistic voice in the protests that led to the Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of the Czech communist regime in 1989.

In recent decades, widely lauded as “the first lady of the harpsichord,” Růžičková taught and conducted master classes in Prague, Bratislava, Zurich and other cities. She retired from public performance in 2006.

From 1965 to 1973, she recorded the complete harpsichord works of Bach in sessions in Prague and Paris. Those recordings were reissued last year by Erato.

An obituary by Emily Langer for The Washington Post:


Dressed for ‘Faust’

To mark its reopening after the (not yet completed) renovation of its theater, the Berlin State Opera has resurrected a relic of the previous millennium: the dress code.

For the first-night performance of Schumann’s “Scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’,” a concert work, not an opera – stage reconstruction is ongoing – journalists covering the event are advised to dress “festlich-elegant,” Norman Lebrecht reports on his Slipped Disc blog:


Festlich-elegant – literal translation: “festive-elegant” – apparently differs in some way from formal. It might mean what one would wear for an evening dinner date at a four-star restaurant, or what trend-conscious 30-somethings would wear at a dressy gallery opening. Or it might mean black tie with some colorfully quirky substitute for the black tie.

Most of the journalists I know, even those who cover highbrow fields, are not what you’d call fashion-forward. I expect that those assigned to cover the Berlin event will play it safe and wear some approximation of a tuxedo.

For dressy affairs, I keep an Italian-cut, double-breasted black suit that I can wear with a tuxedo shirt and black tie, and do without studs, suspenders, cummerbund and other nonsense appurtenances. If I’m feeling lazy or rebellious, I’ll wear the suit with a white turtleneck.

That seems to be festlich-elegant enough for Richmond. I can’t speak for Berlin.

Letter V Classical Radio Sept. 27

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

John Marsh: Symphony No. 7 in E flat major (“La Chasse”)
London Mozart Players/Matthias Bamert

Brahms: Piano Trio in C major, Op. 87
Emanuel Ax, piano
Leonidas Kavakos, violin
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
(Sony Classical)

Past Masters:
Mozart: Horn Quintet in E flat major, K. 407
Dennis Brain, French horn
English String Quartet
(BBC Legends)
(recorded 1957)

Beethoven: Trio in C major, Op. 87
Heinz Holliger & Hans Elhorst, oboes
Maurice Bourgue, English horn
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Dohnányi: Serenade in C major, Op. 10
(orchestration by Dmitry Sitkovetsky)
NES Chamber Orchestra/Dmitry Sitkovetsky

Robert Ward: “Bath County Rhapsody”
Jane Hawkins, piano
Ciompi Quartet

Respighi: “Poema Autumnale”
Julia Fischer, violin
Monte Carlo Philharmonic/Yakov Kreizberg

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5 in D major
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic/Vernon Handley
(EMI Eminence)

Reviews: Paley Festival

Alexander Paley has long favored cyclical performances of composers’ works.

To mark the 20th anniversary of his Richmond music festival, the pianist and his wife and duo and four-hands partner, Peiwen Chen, played the complete two-piano music of Sergei Rachmaninoff in the Sept. 22 opening concert. (Click the link on the preceding post, below, for my review for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)

Then, on Sept. 23, Paley and Daisuke Yamamoto, concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony, played Beethoven’s 10 sonatas for piano and violin in afternoon and evening concerts. Before the festival, Paley said that Yamamoto hesitated only briefly before agreeing to this day-long marathon.

The violinist seemed none the worse for wear in the second concert, not even after playing the mighty “Kreutzer” in A major, Op. 47, ninth of the sonatas, with one more to go – and that final sonata, the G major, Op. 96, is not exactly a cool-down, demanding from the violinist great lyricism at widely varied dynamic levels.

The evening began with the Sonata in A major, Op. 30, No. 1, highlighted by one of the most Mozartian movements Beethoven ever produced, a central adagio for violin with minimal piano accompaniment that could easily pass for a reverie by a heroine from one of Mozart’s operas. Yamamoto played it with a winning combination of ardor and restraint, letting the tune bloom at its own pace.

It was the first of many such moments in his performances, reminders that he’s a musician with the taste and judgment to let a composer speak without a lot of violinistic display or interpretative intervention. He summoned plenty of fire and speedy virtuosity when needed, but was most impressive technically in quieter passages, producing fine-spun tones that one hears too rarely from string players in Beethoven.

Yamamoto also showed an understanding of the difference between sentiment and sentimentality, essential in music such as the hymn-like adagio cantabile of the Sonata in C minor, Op. 30, No. 2, and the adagio-as-soliloquy of Op. 96.

Balance between piano and violin, always an issue when these instruments meet, was problematic in the loudest or most emphatic episodes, such as the opening movement of the C minor Sonata and the outer movements of the “Kreutzer.” Paley doesn’t hold back in stormy Beethoven, and the bright tone of Blüthner piano he was playing underscored the volume and impact of his performance.

The pianist was sensitive, though, to the greater prominence of the violin in the later sonatas, especially the last, in which the instrument assumes the first-among-equals role that it would play relative to the piano in the romantic and modern literature.

* * *

The festival’s finale, a matinee on Sept. 24, featured two prime, and markedly good-humored, pieces of Beethoven’s early chamber music, the Horn Sonata in F major, Op. 17, and Quintet in E flat major, Op. 16, for piano and winds, as well as Mozart’s Quintet in E flat major, K. 452, for piano and winds, the work that inspired Beethoven to write his quintet.

Paley was joined in the sonata by James Ferree, the Richmond Symphony’s principal French horn player, and in the quintets by Ferree and two colleagues from the orchestra – oboist Alexandra von der Embse and Thomas Schneider, the symphony’s principal bassoonist – along with clarinetist Charles West, a longtime member of the music faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University and a regular participant in this festival.

Vienna in the late-classical period (c. 1780-1820) was a hotbed of wind writing, both within orchestrations (notably, Mozart’s), in the wind octets known as Harmonie, and in other chamber-music configurations.

A smallish number of such chamber works survive in the active repertory – Mozart’s “Gran Partita,” Schubert’s Octet, some of Franz Danzi’s wind quintets; and some wind-octet arrangements (suites from Mozart and Rossini operas, Beethoven’s reduction of his Seventh Symphony) have been recorded and occasionally performed in concert.

The Mozart and Beethoven quintets are essentially the end of the line for this genre. Most composers of later eras have employed strings in their piano quintets.

That’s a pity, because a wind ensemble can maintain sonic parity readily with a modern piano, even when played by a pianist as assertive as Paley can be. In these performances, the instruments blended consistently, and no solo sounded reticent or recessed. Exchanges among the wind instruments were consistent in voicing and companionable in musical spirit.

All five musicians showed a fine grasp of Mozart’s idiom and Beethoven’s still somewhat tentative expansion on Viennese classical style. (His sonata and quintet carry opus numbers immediately preceding that of the first six string quartets; all date from the 1790s.)

The piano parts of the two quintets are not especiallly elaborate and, for Beethoven, rather understated, even delicate. Paley played accordingly, with crystalline clarity and generally with deference toward the winds.

Ferree, the most accomplished horn player the symphony has had in decades, was robustly declarative in the outer movements of the Beethoven sonata, and treated its slow movement to a songful reading with nicely varied shades of sonority.

The festival closed with an impromptu encore of “Happy Birthday,” closing with Ferree adding a jazzy flourish.

Letter V Classical Radio Sept. 20

A feast of piano music: In the second hour, we’ll hear performances by Alexander Paley as the pianist joins me in the studio to discuss his Richmond music festival, marking its 20th anniversary with four concerts from Sept. 22 to 24 at St. Luke Lutheran Church. And we’ll hear new and recent recordings by Krystian Zimerman, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Evgeny Kissin, Fazil Say, Arcadi Volodos, and the duo of Martha Argerich & Stephen Kovacevich.

noon-3 p.m. EDT
1600-1900 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

J.S. Bach: “French Suite” No. 4 in E flat major, BWV 815
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano

Capriccio in F sharp minor, Op. 76, No. 1
Capriccio in B minor, Op. 76, No. 2
Arcadi Volodos, piano
(Sony Classical)

Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. posth.
Nocturne in C minor, Op. posth.
Fazil Say, piano
(Warner Classics)

Beethoven: Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”)
Evgeny Kissin, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Balakirev: “Islamey”
Alexander Paley, piano
(Brilliant Classics)

Dvořák: “From the Bohemian Forest” – “In the Spinning Room”
Alexander Paley & Peiwen Chen, piano four-hands
(Paley Festival)

Mozart: Fantasie in D minor, K. 397
Alexander Paley, piano

Debussy: “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun”
(arrangement by Claude Debussy)
Martha Argerich & Stephen Kovacevich, pianos
(Warner Classics)

Schubert: Sonata in B flat major, D. 960
Krystian Zimerman, piano
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Brahms: Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2
Arcardi Volodos, piano
(Sony Classical)

Reviews: The season begins

The opening concerts of Richmond’s 2017-18 classical season set some high standards, and suggested some artistic parameters for what we’ll be hearing in concerts to come.

The headline kickoff event, of course, was Joshua Bell’s appearance in the Richmond Symphony’s opening-night concert on Sept. 14 at Dominion Arts Center’s Carpenter Theatre.

The star violinist played to his strengths in Édouard Lalo’s “Symphonie espagnole,” a hybrid symphony-concerto in which the violin puts a brilliant gloss on five tuneful and rhythmically infectious movements. Bell, unsurprisingly, more than met the piece’s virtuosic demands, and looked to be as physically immersed as he was musically. As gratifying as his playing was in the splashy outer movements, I was at least as taken with his sensuous treatment of the central beguine.

Bell was joined by Yesong Sophie Lee, a teenage violinist from Seattle who won high honors in last year’s Menuhin Competition, in J.S. Bach’s Double Concerto in D minor, BWV 1043. Lee dug into the lower-riding, more technically intricate part, with Bell answering in semi-sweet high lines.

The orchestra seconded Bell colorfully in the Lalo, and a chamber-scale ensemble of strings and harpsichord gave warm backing to the violin duo in the Bach.

The orchestral showcase of the concert was Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben” (“A Hero’s Life”), a grand-scale tone poem and musical roman à clef casting the composer himself as the heroic protagonist.

Running the better part of an hour and scored for an enormous orchestra – nine French horns, five trumpets, extra stands of woodwinds, full percussion battery, two harps – the work is a major challenge to the conductor as air traffic controller, maintaining sectional balances in massive tutti passages and allowing frequent solos and duos to be voiced with suitable prominence and character.

Steven Smith, the symphony’s music director, kept his forces in their assigned lanes, projected this music’s wide contours of volume and expression – intimate exchanges and violent outbursts, lushly romantic tunes and quirky asides – and sustained the piece’s narrative flow. Smith gave plenty of space to the solo voices, notably violinist Daisuke Yamamoto, and generally kept orchestra sections in balance.

Orchestral sound was remarkably consistent and refined, considering the number of substitute musicians an orchestra Richmond’s size must bring in for a work on the scale of “Heldenleben.”

Smith and the symphony opened the program with an assertively jaunty reading of Ulysses Kay’s “Theater Set (Overture) for Orchestra.”

* * *

The chamber-music season was launched with performances at the University of Richmond by the Escher Quartet with guitarist Jason Vieaux and the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia.

Opening the classical series of UR’s Modlin Arts Center on Sept. 10, the Escher – violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Danbi Um, violist Pierre Lapointe and cellist Brook Speltz – delivered an account of Mozart’s “Hunt” Quartet in B flat major, K. 458, that landed solidly in the modern-instruments mainstream, and a vividly detailed and expressive treatment of “Arcadiana,” a 1994 work by Thomas Adès, a British composer whose modernist style is punctuated with evocations of earlier music (here, Mozart, Schubert and Elgar) as well as literary and visual-art references.

Vieaux, playing Richmond for the second time this year (he performed with the symphony last February), joined the Escher in an elegant-turned-rollicking reading of Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet in D major, known as the “Fandango” for its high-stepping dance finale, in which cellist Speltz traded his bow for castanets. The five players turned the corner nicely as the piece swerves from high-classicism to exuberantly gritty folksiness.

Vieaux preceded the Boccherini with a solo mini-recital of excerpts of J.S. Bach’s Lute Suite No. 1 in E minor, BWV 996, and arrangements of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mode” and “A Felicidade” from Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Black Orpheus” film score. The guitarist’s technique was finely polished in the Bach; just as impressive was his range of mood-sculpting in his arrangement of the Ellington and Roland Dyens’ arrangement of the Jobim.

The cast recruited by cellist James Wilson, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society, for its season-opener, Sept. 17 at UR’s Perkinson Recital Hall, offered its audience a rare opportunity to hear mid-19th century romantic works by Mendelssohn and Schumann played on gut-string fiddles and a reproduction of an 1830 Graf piano.

The sonic and textural differences were striking in Mendelssohn’s Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, and Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44.

The quartet, arguably Mendelssohn’s most emotionally fraught composition (written in the aftermath of the death of his sister, Fanny), was played with high energy, vivid moodiness, strong accenting and a notable absence of standard-issue Mendelssohnian sweetness by violinists Aisslin Nosky and Guillaume Pirard, violist Max Mandel and cellist Wilson.

The string players, with Carsten Schmidt at the keyboard, gave an unusual perspective, almost inside-out, to the Schumann. The early piano, which has a more woodsy, less brilliant tone than a modern instrument, did not stand out in the ensemble. So, instead of piano with strings, we heard piano among strings.

Baritone Jonathan Woody joined Schmidt in a compelling traversal of “Dichterliebe” (“Poet’s Love”), Schumann’s cycle of 15 songs to texts of Heinrich Heine. These sometimes interconnected songs, some with extensive piano postludes, run the gamut of romantic mood and expression, emotional depth and surface bravado, and Woody realized their varied voices idiomatically and with spot-on diction.

Chamber Music Society library date canceled

“Minds on Fire,” the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia’s Sept. 16 performance in the Richmond Public Library’s Gellman Room, has been canceled. Due to potential unrest as a pro-Confederate group rallies at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, possibly drawing counter-protesters, the city’s police and emergency management officials asked the library close its downtown main branch.

Letter V Classical Radio Sept. 13

A shortened program this week, due to other commitments . . .

noon-2 p.m. EDT
1600-1800 UTC/GMT
WDCE, University of Richmond
90.1 FM

Mozart: “Don Giovanni” Overture
La Cetra Baroque Orchestra, Basel/Andrea Marcon
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor
Krystian Zimerman, piano & director
Polish Festival Orchestra
(Deutsche Grammophon)

Tchaikovsky: “Sérénade mélancolique”
Joshua Bell, violin
Berlin Philharmonic/Michael Tilson Thomas
(Sony Classical)

Past Masters:
Beethoven: Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127
Hungarian Quartet
(recorded 1953)
(United Archives)

Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor
Christophe Coin, cello
Orchestre des Champs Elysées/Philippe Herreweghe
(Harmonia Mundi)