Country for old men

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  January 29, 2008

Heitor Villa-Lobos’s surprising 1926 “portrait” of Arthur Rubinstein as a wild man on the violent edge of the avant-garde, Rudepoema (“rude poem” — but also a pun on Rubinstein’s nickname, Rudi), is even more technically challenging and more musically complex, so fast in places that the music sounds more like a buzz, and alternating exotic insinuations (in the slow section) with the visceral relentlessness of Bartók’s 1911 Allegro barbaro. The piece ends with the pianist pounding his right fist three times on the lowest keys, holding the sustaining pedal down to let the explosion fade away. (“I am exactly performing the composer’s wishes and nothing else,” Hamelin announced before his staggering performance.)

My favorite moment, though, was the exquisite minor-key Adagio of the Haydn F-major Sonata that opened the program, a darkly dreamy, Chopin-esque love song that provided an inward-turning contrast to the skittery and playful surrounding movements and the rhetoric of the Haydn B-flat Sonata that followed, all elegantly and expressively played. I was less happy with the real Chopin, a somewhat rushed Barcarolle and a Ballade No. 3 that lacked a personal stamp. There were three Liszt transcriptions of songs by Chopin and Schubert (a lovely “Ständchen,” a sentimental “Ave Maria, complete with treacly harp imitations), and, as encores, two Weissenberg arrangements of delicious cabaret songs by Charles Trenet (“April in Paris” and “You’re Forgetting Your Horse”).

Keep your eye out for Sasha Cooke, a 23-year-old mezzo who, accompanied by pianist Pei-Yao Wang, sang a thoughtful Gardner Museum concert on Sunday that included three song cycles about women: John Harbison’s mysterious and funny North and South (six incandescent, mercurial poems by Elizabeth Bishop), Debussy’s erotic Chansons de Bilitis, and Schumann’s domestic Frauenliebe und -leben. Cooke has a thrilling, dramatic voice that matches the color of her luxuriant dark red hair, and the empathetic ability to live inside these poems and articulate their variegated emotional shadings.

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