Pianist Jura Margulis


By Scott MacClelland

JURA MARGULIS has been playing annual piano recitals at Hidden Valley off and on for about 15 years. To that end, and thanks to a warm relationship with Hidden Valley’s Peter Meckel, Margulis brings with him an international career as a concert artist, well-known to major symphony orchestras and festivals worldwide. Moreover, he is a sought-after competition judge and administrator.

For his Hidden Valley concert last week, he served up six sonatas—originally for harpsichord—by Domenico Scarlatti, an atonal Poeme of 1914 by Alexander Scriabin and the sprawling early Sonata in F Minor of 1852-3 by Johannes Brahms. Margulis spoke eloquently about these works before starting to play them.

In considering the Baroque giants, JS Bach and George F Handel, one should recognize that Scarlatti, their exact contemporary, and then working in Spain, was at the forefront of the coming Classical style. There are similarities, especially between Scarlatti and the keyboard and instrumental music of Handel, yet Scarlatti seems to have a clearer idea of what was on the horizon. (He also had contemporaries in Spain, like Antonio Soler, who likewise fell in line.)

Like Handel, Scarlatti’s sonatas are all in binary form (AABB) and rooted in dance. The first of them, in F Minor, at nine minutes the most expansive and circumspect in nearly romantic expression, was followed in turn by shorter ones in mostly more animated character. Three of the six are among the best known (most popular?) of Scarlatti’s sonatas: the E Major with its trumpet-like fanfares, and the two in D Minor. The second of them, played last, fast and furious got a virtuosic aggression that was Beethovenian, a truly long distance vision. The G Major sonata was also fast and the second E Major both danceable and joyous.

There is a lot of interpretive latitude in these pieces and Margulis said he was not going to try to imitate the harpsichord. Indeed, here and elsewhere, he displayed both a fluid grace and a sharply percussive touch that sometimes might have been better called for in a larger venue than the intimate Hidden Valley ‘barn.’

Scriabin’s Poeme “Vers la flamme” (Toward the flame) was written just before the composer’s death from sepsis at age 42. A simple melody is soon encrusted with atonal harmonies and intense tremolos that rise to an ecstatic climax bringing to mind some of the piano music of Olivier Messiaen. But there was order not chaos in the piece as might have been the experience of anyone not familiar with it.

By the age of 20 Brahms had already composed his first three piano sonatas—before he first met Robert Schumann, the composer who would have the most far-ranging influence on the younger man’s music. The three sonatas, Opp 1, 2 and 5, are astoundingly ambitious; together they take an hour and forty minutes to perform. In them one hears—and feels—the tension between romantic excess (Dionysus) and classical restraint (Apollo) underpinned by startling rhythmic originality. We may thank one Eduard Marxsen, Brahms’ piano teacher, for reinforcing these qualities and stressing classical architecture to his gifted pupil.

Of the three sonatas, the third, at fully five movements, comes in at 40 minutes. I don’t remember if it was ever played here before, hence this guide: The first movement charges in with Allegro maestoso that then alternates with discursive reflection. The following Andante espressivo features a broad, songful melody and melting harmonies. The Scherzo, symphonic in the Lisztian sense, parries off against a gentler trio. The ensuing Intermezzo follows a funereal cadence. The Finale features a soaring, sturdy theme and lapses briefly into a fughetta. Brahms displays remarkable mastery over these elements, even as his later artistic personality has not yet come into full bloom. But his use of ‘call and response’ couplets—a hallmark of his mature style—is frequently evident.

This performance by the commanding Mr. Margulis made me wish I had attended his previous concerts at Hidden Valley. From the familiar faces in the audience, and their response, I could tell I was the new kid.

Monterey Symphony, May 21


By Scott MacClelland

SAVORING Otto Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor overture, finding the tasty morsels of Antonín Dvořák’s rarely heard Piano Concerto in G Minor and finally chewing through Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor made for an oddly unbalanced meal in Max Bragado-Darman’s last Monterey Symphony concert of the current season. In their Sunday afternoon performance in Carmel the orchestra and soloist Michael Noble could not be faulted for delivering the scheduled three course menu in excellent fettle. The appetizer sparkled with light Viennese operetta character. The main course, the Franck, inherently dark, ponderous and top-heavy with brass, recalled the long-haul symphonies of Anton Bruckner—though there is no evidence that Franck ever heard any of those writhing Wagnerian serpents who inhabit the forests of upper Austria between the low-lying Danube and the alpine headwaters of the Rhine. In between came the Dvořák, a misfit that promised—or at least proposed—more sizzle than its composer gave it. (“I see that I am unable to write a concerto for a virtuoso,” he wrote. “I must think of other things.”)

In his defense, the piano was not Dvořák’s instrument. Of course he played it competently, in public, and made marvelous use of it in his chamber music with strings. Moreover, it was his first foray in the concerto form. (His violin concerto, four years later, and the great cello concerto of 1895, lay to rest any doubt as to his mastery of virtuoso writing.) Further, no one familiar with his mature works could fail to recognize the composer’s fingerprints, right from the start, including some Bohemian folkloric allusions. Unlike the concert program notes, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Brahms’ earlier First Piano Concerto was a template; that work was the German composer’s first attempt at a symphony. And anyway, Dvořák does subscribe faithfully to the classical concerto form, safely building the long first movement around two major themes. (Various pianists have made emendations to the original, including Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný, its most-determined 20th century champion, but who finally went back to the original. “For all the so-called clumsiness in the piano writing the original is far purer than any subsequent revision and more truly characteristic of the young Dvořák.”)

The andante sostenuto was a lovely seduction, more urban than rural in flavor. The boldly robust finale sounded closest to the familiar Dvořák, coming as it did just before the music that would put him on the map, the Slavonic Dances. Noble, who played his part from the complete score—hence the rapid-fire page turning—told me during the interval that the piece is not so easy to play. That no doubt explains why this was its regional premiere. For an encore, he sensitively offered the second intermezzo, in E, from Brahms’ Fantasien, Op 116.

The Nicolai and the Franck have nothing in common, save that both composers died soon after the premieres, Nicolai from a stroke at age 38 in 1849 two months after his charming Shakespearean singspiel was first staged, and Franck, from pleurisy and related illness at age 67 in 1890, a year and half the premiere of the symphony.

The Nicolai overture was commonly heard on classical pops concerts of years ago, a neat fit with light fare from such contemporaries as Franz von Suppé, Adolphe Adam, Johann Strauss and—from a later generation Emil von Řezníček and Franz Lehár—for whose music the goal is always clean, snappy playing and gaiety of spirit.

Franck’s ultimate claim to fame is his remarkable economy of means, his ability to recycle ideas throughout a piece, not unlike Beethoven of the Fifth Symphony, only more so. In the Symphony in D Minor, every new idea—many derived from earlier ones—reappears in ever-mounting iterations. The last movement is chockful of everything that came before. Perhaps ironically, the heavy orchestration seems at odds with French aesthetic sensibilities of the delicate touch and transparency of textures. Those qualities run true from the Baroque though the 20th century. There are exceptions of course, Berlioz was capable of great bombast, though he didn’t make a dungeon out of it. Saint-Saëns likewise on both counts. D’Indy and Lalo could get swept away. And certainly Olivier Messiaen, in the 20th century, “piling up decibels as if he were jealous of the sonic boom,” quoting the words of Igor Stravinsky. The most magical moment in the Franck was the beginning of the middle movement, with the solo harp, cor anglais, violas, horn and bassoons. But the sustained dark passages, thick textures, chromatic melodic lines and loud brass put Franck in a place all his own. Only the inflated grandiosity of Franz Liszt’s orchestral music compares. And, by the way, Franck right at the start helped himself, without attribution, to the first theme from Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Preludes. Having died a couple of years earlier, Liszt didn’t care.