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Testing, testing ...

Manes For a while I have been looking around for another person to help in writing classical music reviews. There is just so much going on and I have trouble covering everything that needs to be covered. The reviewers to whom I am grateful for assisting me, Garaud MacTaggart and News critic emeritus Herman Trotter, are also stretched pretty thin.

Finding a person to write about classical music is easier said than done, for a whole host of reasons that could be a separate story in itself. But the good news is, I have found a reviewer I am going to be introducing shortly, who I hope will be helping us out now and then. His name is Carl Hriczak.

Carl is a pianist but more importantly he is a music nerd, like me. I had him "try out" last week. He and his girlfriend were at Slee Hall for the recital by Stephen Manes, pictured at left, the longtime head of the UB Music Department.  We unfortunately were unable to review Stephen because Garaud could not do it and Herman could not do it. And Stephen was my longtime piano teacher and we are good friends so I could not do it. Anyway, storm and stress, welcome to my world.

But there Carl was and on a whim I said, "Carl, why don't you take this notebook and, just for the heck of it, write a review, so we could see how you'd do?" And he did! He emailed it to me early next morning.

And I liked it. I did not agree with everything he wrote but that is OK, it is good for reviewers to have different tastes and opinions, as long as they can explain themselves. Anyway, I thought I would print Carl's review here, even though it was kind of a freebie because it was a tryout. He said it was OK. So if you were at the Stephen Manes concert Tuesday, or if you were not and want to know what you missed, here goes, here is Carl Hriczak's review. 

    Tuesday evening’s recital by University at Buffalo professor emeritus Stephen Manes was themed “Vienna and Beyond,” and featured works from both the mid-romantic and atonal periods of composition, by composers closely associated with both the first and second schools of Viennese composers. The atmosphere in Lippes Concert Hall was expectant as Manes took the stage to begin the Sonata No.1 by second school composer Alban Berg. The work, which straddles the line where tonality dissolves into chaos, was presented in a liquid, flowing manner, replete with copious usage of the sustain pedal. The excessive use of pedal is something I did not expect, and it resulted in smooth contours that took some of the edge off the tense, brooding harmonies. The performance as a whole had a relaxed quality that is the antithesis of what I would expect, where tension was replaced by a warmth normally reserved for Brahms and the like. 

     The program continued with the two Op.33 piano pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, also of the second school, and were far more radical than the Berg, which seemed tame by comparison. These pieces have allusions to jazz music, and Manes was masterful in presenting this aspect. Several times during the first of the two, he raised his left hand high in the air in a sweeping conducting motion, something very reminiscent of fellow pianist Glenn Gould, who was also closely associated with this work. The Sforzandos, or sudden attacks, were loud and abrupt, causing me to jump in my seat. The mood contrast to the first piece could not have been greater; Manes is a shape-shifter who effortlessly fit himself to the mood of the composition. 

     The first half of the program ended with the Moments Musicaux, D.780, of first school composer Franz Schubert, who wrote this set of short pieces roughly a century before the atonal works that preceded it. The presentation was at first shocking; there was an abruptness and harshness that I would have felt far more deserving of the more modern works. Tense and unhappy, the character of the performance seemed off for what one would expect of a great Schubert pianist. But, as it progressed, a warmth developed, and by the end, it was as if a tight glove had stretched to become comfortable. This was, if anything, a mixed performance, and the weakest of the evening, something about it simply did not click. 

     After a long intermission, we were treated to the Op. 27 variations of Anton Webern, perhaps the most radical work on the program, by the most radical figure of the second school. The rendering was polite, amorphous, and dreamlike, seeming more like Debussy or Bartok than I thought possible. Once again, the pedal blurred over the sharp lines and abrupt dissonances, making for a fluid performance that lacked drive and edge. The counterpoint, especially in the wild leaps that occur more often than not, was marvelously rendered, with special care taken to delineate the left-hand from the chaos in the treble register. Again, this is a performance at odds with the expected way of presenting atonal music, but in the end I found it very enjoyable. 

     The evening ended in spectacular fashion with the Carnaval, Op.9, an early work by Robert Schumann, who strictly speaking was not a Viennese figure, but who did nurture one of the great sons of Vienna, Johannes Brahms. And indeed, the way Manes presented this monumental tour-de-force of a work was greatly indebted to Brahms. It was easy to lose sight that this was Schumann, and at times I imagined I was hearing perhaps some lost intermezzi of Brahms, but the approach totally worked. I was in awe as Manes let himself go and had obvious fun, putting on full display his masterful technical skills. The octave passages in particular had a dazzling flash that left me wondering how a wrist alone could move so fluidly. A lesser pianist could play with two hands the fluid melody he played with one. 

    The mood was joyful and befitting the name of the work, and at times the rubato and crescendi coincided to produce an effect that I thought may lift me up to the heavens. During the last phrase, his left foot stomped forcefully with a loud bang, bringing us back into reality from a performance that I would gladly pay money to own in my record collection. A masterful end to a superlative evening of music.

    Good job, Carl! Interesting thoughts and alert listening, plus we got to review Stephen Manes after all, better late than never. I wish it had occurred to me to post this earlier! One other thing, I like the reference to the record collection. Carl is 29 but he listens to vinyl. As do I. As should everyone!

    But those are thoughts for another day.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman


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