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Podles trumps Mehta at the Wigmore, while Cerha springs a surprise [Dec. 30th, 2009|06:28 pm]
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Bejun Mehta’'s first 41 years make an interesting story. The son of two musicians, and a nephew of Zubin Mehta, he first found fame - and accolades from Leonard Bernstein - as a boy soprano. After the break he tried unsuccessfully to make it as a baritone, then as a cellist, before being inspired by the example of David Daniels to try his luck as a counter-tenor, and lo! He’s now a counter-tenor star in his own right. He may be sought-after for Handel and Britten - he made a strikingly evil Oberon in the Glyndebourne ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ - but his Wigmore debut suggests that as a recitalist he’s still got some way to go. He has a beautiful, bell-like sound, but it’s not based on speech, and it comes out unvaryingly, whatever he’s singing about. On the operatic stage, he can get right inside his part (despite hilariously chaotic coloratura), but in recital he completely fails to characterise each song as required.


He could learn a thing or two from the great Polish contralto Ewa Podles, who took the same stage a week later. Last time round - in a concert now enshrined on a WigmoreLive Cd - she and her pianist Garrick Ohlsson (a virtuoso in his own right) regaled their fans with songs by Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky. This time they did Musorgsky, Haydn, and the little-known Polish composer Mieceslaw Karlowicz (1876-1909), for whom Podles carries a torch. Whether he would have emerged as a major composer if he hadn’t been swept away by an avalanche at 33, I’m not sure: the piano accompaniments to his songs were more memorable than the voice parts, for all their wistful grace. But the main event - Musorgsky’s ‘The Nursery’ - was electrifying. These songs were Musorgsky’s boldest shot at reflecting the rhythms of everyday speech in music: Podles gave each a unique and irresistible character, by turns comic, sad, and surreal. Her sound is huge, yet her coloratura is astonishingly nimble, and she has a seemingly inexhaustible range of colours up her sleeve. The more she sang - finishing with a blast of Rossini as her send-off - the less we wanted to let her go: a life-force.


The following night the Wigmore hosted the Vienna Piano Trio, and note the roster - Wolfgang Redik (violin), Matthias Gredler (cello), and Stefan Mendl (piano) - as these youngish musicians may be names to conjure with in years to come: I have never heard a Haydn piano trio sound so un-sedate, or Brahms’s Opus 87 trio so vivid. Sandwiched between them was a short work of great intriguingness: Friedrich Cerha’s ‘Five Pieces for Piano Trio’ broke the rules of the game by doing away with the piano’s dominion, and letting the subtler sound-worlds of the other two instruments dictate what should happen. Cerha - who once set the cat among the pigeons by daring to complete Berg’s ‘Lulu’ against the dead composer’s wife’s wishes - is with his friend Kurt Schwertsik one of the two leading composers in Austria today. Everything they do is (often quietly) revolutionary, and never less than interesting.
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