Thursday, September 8, 2011

Dmitry Mayboroda Review

Dmitry Mayboroda, Piano
Bennett-Gordon Hall, Ravinia
September 7, 2011

All-Rachmaninoff Program:

•Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3 No. 2
(Preludes Op. 23)
•No. 5 in G Minor
•No. 4 in D Major
•No. 2 in B-flat Major
•No. 6 in E-flat Major

Preludes Op. 32
•No. 10 in B Minor
•No. 12 in G-sharp Minor
•No. 13 in D-flat Major

Moments musicaux Op. 16
•No. 4 in E Minor
•No. 5 in D-flat Major
•No. 6 in C Major


•Liebesfreud (Love’s Joy)
•Liebesleid (Love’s Sorrow)

•Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

•Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36

•Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G, 32/5
•Rachmaninoff: Polka de Vassily Rachmaninoff

Probably the best overall description I can give about my thoughts on this concert as a whole can be summed up with an anecdote about the middle part of the G minor prelude. 
If you look at the score, you see a pleasant melody in octaves in the right hand, and a gently inflected rolling bass line in the left, looping up and down like hills. Most pianists take this middle part simply as the "middle section" of the piece, and content themselves with a perfunctory rendering of the overall shape: melody, and rolling accompaniment, steamrolling those inflections into nonentity in the process. 

Well, you're interested in going one better than that, you can balance the parts well so that you can hear the soft, rolling accompaniment, the octave melody come in over it, and finally those inflection points poking through in the middle. That's a good way of letting the music speak for itself. 

However, it is possible to go through that very process, but figure out HOW the melody and the rolling bass relate to those inflections, and then tailor their parts so that when the inflections do come in, they sound like an outgrowth of everything that came before. In a rich piece of music, there are typically a few ways in which that might be done, and when one chooses to do so, it gives the impression of the artist making a STATEMENT.

This happened all night long.

The person sitting next to me during the concert asked me what I thought of his technique. I thought for a bit, and said that I believed his technique to be par. While he obviously can play and shape the notes in all of these pieces–either by choice, or by limitation, I can't presume to know which–there remain others who can outdo him technically. One can't hear Gavrilov play the octaves and chords at the end of the B flat prelude and not be somewhat expectant when a new pianist comes up and plays that piece; Mayboroda was very good, but I've heard dynamite elsewhere. Clearly, Mayboroda could handle the octaves in the G minor prelude, but they didn't come etched out like bullets like Matsuev does. My one complaint of the evening is that the Mendelssohn didn't sound as "spritely" as it should. Granted, even a pianist of great stature like Garrick Ohlsson was quoted in an interview as stating that particular piece has "so many notes in it!", so we can forgive Mr. Mayboroda for somewhat succumbing to the extreme density of texture a little bit.

The good news through all of this is that I don't think it matters in the least. 

That Wednesday evening, Mr. Mayboroda made it abundantly clear that he was focused on bringing out the small details and the inner voices in Rachmaninoff's music. Sure, his scales were clean, and his details were well-defined, but I could tell that that wasn't his focus. It was as if he said, "Now, the technique for XYZ passage is very good, and that is sufficient. Now I can focus on these things." And went on to concentrate on the arc of the performance through the two halves of the program, and sculpting his sound to be what he wanted. As the concert went on, overall his tone subtly but ceaselessly shifted from a more melody focused sound (one that one would stereotypically expect to hear in Chopin playing) to a richer, darker, more full blooded one. A classic example was the Moment Musical in C (a piece I think can stand to be forgotten): he brought out details in the writing of that piece I've never heard anyone do before. Most pianists just kind of let the volume and the texture (I've read that this piece has more notes per second than anything else Rachmaninoff ever wrote) speak for itself, but in Mayboroda's hands, we hear shapely, charming, chromatic melodic lines. Granted, they were repetitive and supernumerary charming, shapely melodic lines, but they were there. Mayboroda took the trouble to take Rachmaninoff's music and make something out of it. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Eldar Nebolsin Review

Eldar Nebolsin, piano
Bennett-Gordon Hall
Sunday, September 4, 2011. 6:00pm.


•Sonata in A, D. 664

•Sonata in E flat, Op. 7


•"Das Wandern", "Wohin", "Der Muller und der Bach"

•An die ferne Geliebte

•Totentanz (solo piano version)

Well, this is going to be one of "those" reviews.

When I write a review of a performance, I try to strive for something constructive; I think the perfect review is entertaining, informative and comprehensible to the prospective listener while at the same time remaining constructive and meaningful as as critique for the performer. If I had to sit down with Mr. Nebolsin and tell him what I thought of his performance, the conversation might go something like this:

Eldar Nebolsin: What did you think of my performance?
Pierre Miller: Well, it was certainly technically capable.
EN: That's all?
PM: Well, it was.
EN: If you had to sum it up in a word?
PM: In a single word? Affected.
EN: Really?
PM: Yes, the exposition of the first movement of the Beethoven sonata came with a good deal of chin wagging, and in the fourth movement, every hand crossing came with its own cutesy facial expression. I didn't see the Schubert sonata, but in the transcriptions, every time the music expressed humor, you brought everything to a full stop and made a cheesy grin. Fortunately, the rest of your Liszt was just as histrionic as it should be. To be honest, it's been a long time since I've seen anyone swivel, gyrate, gesticulate and pivot on their heel that much while sitting down who wasn't four years old.
EN: In two words?
PM: Incompletely polished. The Beethoven sonata was well played, but in the slow, emotional core of the sonata, you didn't let the music breathe enough. You tried to give it some breadth, but you only projected an incomplete sense of repose, which gave us the impression that the music was tired, but wasn't sleeping well. In the last two of the Schubert-Liszt pieces, your phrasing was nothing but virile statements: strong openings, strong closes–even in the weeping, sinuous lines of The Miller and the Brook, you took music that was weeping and tried to make it sound heroic. (And, not in a Cuba Gooding Jr. "strong and powerful through the tears" sort of way.) In the Beethoven-Liszt, you had your first really great emotional moment, but I don't think anybody noticed because it happened in the middle of a thick stack of boring, unknown, homogenous-sounding pieces. The bland harmony was irritating enough without having to hear you sight-read it and work out what you wanted to do with your touch. That reminds me of two other words I would use to describe your program.
EN: What's that?
PM: Oddly programmed. The Liszt transcriptions of An die fern Geliebte? Those were not forgotten masterworks. Nobody cares about them! Perhaps you knew that the music couldn't stand on its own without the benefit of text. This might explain why you distracted us by swirling around like a top. You intentionally made the last half of the program all Liszt–surely, Liszt wrote better things!
EN: What was the best part of the concert?
PM: I like that you took off your coat and untucked your shirt before you played the Totentanz. You played it well, and I liked the way you rewrote the ending. You ended the concert with a very good bang, and it earned you a standing ovation. However, it was kind of awkward the way you kept squeezing out encores even though the audience had almost completely stopped clapping and was packing up. Gauge us next time.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Valentina Lisitsa Review

Valentina Lisitsa, piano
Bennett-Gordon Hall
Thursday, August 18, 2011. 6:00pm.


•Hungarian Rhapsody 12 (Announced from stage)

•Fantasy in C minor, K. 475

•Seven Nocturnes (Op. 55/1, 15/1, 27/1, 15/2, 48/1, 27/2, 9/2)

Leopold Godowsky
•Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes from Johann Strauss II's "Die Fledermaus"


•Six Lieder Transcriptions (Gute Nacht, Das Mädchens Klage, Der Erlkönig, Der Doppelgänger, Der Müeller und der Bach, Ständchen)

•Impromptu in B flat major, D. 935/3

•Totentanz (Concert Paraphrase on Dies Irae)

Tonight, I spent a very pleasant evening watching and listening to Valentina Lisitsa. I like to go into a concert with as clear a mind as possible, and with as few expectations as possible, but tonight, I couldn't. 

Firstly, I went in knowing who Valentina Lisitsa was and what she was known for; she has a huge YouTube presence, and before I went to this performance tonight, I had the pleasure of watching many of her videos. Almost without exception, her videos display tremendous speed, agility, and power in the pieces she plays, and as a result, I (and everyone else in the hall, I believe) went in with an expectation of impressive bravura playing. 

Secondly, I knew her program before I went. For a performer who's reputation is based almost solely on high-power pieces, I was a little intrigued to see that she would be programming the rarely played Mozart C minor fantasy along with a group of nocturnes. I went to see her because I knew about her enormous technique and I wanted to see for myself what kind of a show she would put on in person. 

Lisitsa wore a strapless black dress which hugged her legs, and thus required her to walk across the stage carefully. She bowed once and sat down. Immediately, the audience was taken for a surprise. She spoke. 

In a shy voice with a thick, much-too-fast-for-the-resonance-of-the-hall Ukrainian accent, she informed the audience she just found out that it was a Liszt festival at Ravinia, and that she would like to play a Liszt piece while the audience is getting seated. She played the twelfth Hungarian Rhapsody. 

Liszt was born in the Kingdom of Hungary, but spent most of his educational life in France. Though he identified himself as a hungarian, the cosmopolitan lifestyle brought on from extensively touring Europe at such a young age left him without a strong sense of roots. Later in life he came to regret moving away from his homeland so early and in one touching example of his pathos, he enthusiastically began a letter to his mother in Hungarian, but was unable to sustain it, and halfway through the letter, reverted to French, the language with which he was the most comfortable. Via using melodies which he believed to be hungarian folk tunes, the Rhapsodies were his attempt at exalting the vestiges of his homeland which he could remember. Ironically, however, none of the melodies contained in any of the rhapsodies actually are. 

Of all the 19 rhapsodies, the one Ms. Lisitsa played is the second most popular. (The second rhapsody was popularized by Tom, Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Donald AND Daffy.) Lisitsa prowled through the rhapsody (which was very sufficiently rhapsodic) delivering light-as-a-feather, perfectly poised trills in places that frequently invite laden, overlong executions from players without taste. She showed us that she knew how to give us chords that could be described as multicolored, angular or round, lush or sharp, dense or pointed. With the panoply of control that she displayed in that first, preemptive selection, the only unusual aspect of her playing was that when she passed through a section requiring moderately fast, quiet octaves, she played the octaves from her arm instead of from with her wrist. This is a minor detail, but the usual rule is that octaves you play octaves with the wrist unless power is needed, then you use your arm. It gave that one section the feeling of being overpowered (as in possessing too much power) for what the music was trying to say. More on that in a minute. 

Next, she gave a dark, romantic reading of the Mozart Fantasia in C minor. Though Mozart is a composer squarely from the classical period (the era of "easy listening", dotted i's and crossed t's), the prevailing sentiment in this particular piece is one of angst, anger and volatility–emotions that dominate aesthetics in the romantic era, where Liszt and everyone else on the program lives. A lesser musician might have tried to steamroll the piece into sounding more "classical" and might underplay the piece, in an attempt to dilute or remove entirely the passion. Ms. Lisitsa did no such thing.

Though less demanding in a physical sense, Mozart's music frequently requires very subtle control over tiny movements within the fingers. Lisitsa had no trouble controlling her tone. However, when the music presented opportunities for subtle shading–subordinate melodic sequences, for example–the variety of her shading left a bit to be desired. In any other composer, these are small concerns, but this is Mozart–the essence of Mozart's charm lives in the variety of shades between medium loud and medium soft; In the few moments where Mozart says the same thing twice, he usually intends it to vary, even if only by a degree. Many performers would tell you that herein the very trouble with performing Mozart; if you play a repeat with another composer the same way, the audience might not notice they just heard the same music twice, but do that with Mozart, and all of a sudden every spider in the rafters wants to call you unimaginative. 

Now, in the seven (!) Chopin nocturnes, Ms. Lisitsa demonstrated that she could demonstrate fine shading. The nocturnes came as a welcome surprise–usually when one hears a performer who plays a lot of loud and fast pieces, in a world where to succeed one has to "play to one's strengths", usually they are somewhat lacking in their ability to project soft or slow pieces convincingly. Lisitsa had no problem enveloping her listeners in a warm, poised sound for these masterpieces. 

Despite the inherent trouble in playing seven slow ternary pieces one right after the other (she told me after the concert that she didn't pick the program, although she obviously OK'd it) she held the group together by playing them without interruption, and organizing them in a very good order based on their key relationships, so that the beginning of each piece seemed to "blossom" because of its tonal relationship with how the previous piece ended. 

Chopin championed Mozart and Bach above all other composers, and he constantly strove to achieve the economy of writing in his works that they did. As a result, Chopin's music, though not always demanding delicacy, usually benefits from scrupulous attention to shading and clarity the way Mozart and Bach do. The final nocturne in E flat (Op. 9/2) was delicate and perfect, and the D flat nocturne (Op. 27/2) was handled as suavely as anybody could ask for. Her tone was always impeccable, and her feeling during the slow parts of each nocturne was always rich with repose and tenderness. But on the whole, the seven nocturnes were wonderful, yet not exquisite. Almost without exception, each of Chopin's nocturnes has a contrasting section that changes moods and runs the risk of being overdone by being faster than the rest, or having higher-than-average note density, or a peculiar rhythm, and during these moments, Ms. Lisitsa let go a little too much. 

In the F minor nocturne (55/1), the pentuplet rhythm in the contrasting middle section sounded like it was rushed for dear life. Contrarily, the F major nocturne (15/1) breaks abruptly to the key of F minor during the second third with a repeated harmonic interval in the right hand and violent statements in the left. Ms. Lisitsa stormed through it reducing the piece to a jumble of F minor-ness. In the C minor nocturne (Op. 48/1, the shining masterpiece of the nocturnes) the heartbreaking opening melody, while begun in isolated notes, giving the music a sense of space and desolation, is recapitulated with octaves and repeated chords, creating melos that ebbs and surges with heavy passion. This recap has the capability of drowning the listener with the sheer overpowering force of the melody's emotionality, but Ms. Lisitsa got carried away with the emotion of the piece (like many, many pianists before her; I am no exception) and shuddered through the climax leaving the music sounding frustrated and unfulfilled. The three final chords came sounding tense and resentful, a rather unpleasant ending for a "night song".

Godowsky had one of the most famously dexterous pianistic mechanisms of all time. The man practiced assiduously, and overcame his own problems with his own personal solutions, and as a result, he was able to play music without trouble, and write music of peerless intricacy. The Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes from Johann Strauss II's "Die Fledermaus" is a work to be played by just such a musician. It goes without saying that the technical difficulties are great, and though Ms. Lisitsa may have been technically up to the challenge, her performance lacked the very thing that Godowsky himself sometimes eschewed: dash. The last public performance I have seen of this piece was when Yeol Eum Son performed it at the semi-finals of the 13th Van Cliburn piano competition. Hers had perhaps a bit more clarity than Ms. Lisitsa's, but I came away from it feeling the same way–if you're going to play a piece displaying that mountainous level of virtuosity, you had better bring the goods. A piece like this needs to flow like a river of flames, and for some reason, tonight, it just couldn't.

Ms. Lisitsa prefaced the second half of the program with a very entertaining (if hard to understand) disquisition on how the story of each piece applies to the nature of Schubert the unsung romantic hero. 

There was magic in the six Schubert-Liszt pieces. The first and second pieces were slow, and she took us to great heights. The fourth piece, Der Doppelgänger, depicts the speaker visiting the place where his love once lived and sees a double of himself there. Schubert, in his intimate mastery of telling a story with music sets a slow and complex vocal line against soft, long piano chords to invoke the sensation of the speaker's intractable melancholy against the unstoppable passage of time. The transcription of the Doppelgänger is difficult to pull off on piano because of its extreme slowness–tones die away very fast on the piano with notes this long, and most of the charm of the melody is in the way the singer's voice rises and falls on a note while the piano's chords die away. Frankly, it is one of my favorite pieces of all time, and though I personally take issue with the piece because the piano (a percussion instrument, as Ms. Lisitsa was apt to point out) can't be made to deliver a melody quite as convincingly as a good singer might, her performance of it was a runaway success. 

The Erlkönig and Ständchen are the two most famous transcriptions, Ständchen having one of the most famous melodies in the world. Erlkönig is through-composed but very strophic, and Ständchen is strictly strophic, but each work has a technically demanding climax towards the end where the piece either speeds up or the texture gets thicker, and each time when it did, the problem of rushing through dramatic climaxes reared its unwelcome head. Though in the Erlkönig it was somewhat fitting with the drama of the story (you owe it to yourself to look up the poem by Goethe), it was maddening in the echo section of Ständchen.

The Schubert impromptu was perfect for her. Everything the music demanded, she provided: full tone, clear touch, humor, darkness when the variations went into the minor mode–she had it all. She finished the impromptu and, taking us by surprise, proceeded uninterrupted into the Totentanz (Dance of Death).

The youtube video of her performing this piece is breathtaking. The Totentanz is 15 minutes of a sort of pyrotechnic extemporization, and it might be a really dramatic showpiece in the hands of an artist with just the right amount of volatility and control. Ms. Lisitsa played some parts of it better than in the video and some not as well. There is a section right before the middle of the piece where after a big buildup, the main theme is played with high speed repeated notes. In that moment, at that crucial juncture, where her playing and dexterity were most exposed, she balked: she pedaled through it, losing the bullet-like clarity of the passage, and then played some of her few exposed wrong notes of the evening. 

After the Totentanz, she was called back to the stage three times, after which, she gave an "oh, I suppose" head nod to the piano and gave a very soft, understated performance of Für Elise by Beethoven. In that rondo, there are two contrasting sections that virtuosos often blitz through. Ms. Lisitsa tastefully did no such thing. 

My impression of the evening was that Ms. Lisitsa is an artist with a vibrant temperament and who frequently plays with abandon–she more often chooses to "let herself go" with the music–but not [yet] one of knowing restraint or probing intelligence or scrupulous attention to detail. Her virtuoso playing is extremely good, but it wasn't tempered enough to give the Godowsky the élan that makes the piece sound as dashing as it is. It's the highly intelligent and very unusual artist who can pull off the taxing programming decision to play seven Chopin nocturnes in a row. The moments that require subtlety in playing Chopin are pretty straightforward, but in Mozart they are not, and we noticed. Her tone and touch were gorgeous in all the pieces (especially the 12th Hungarian Rhapsody), even though her structural understanding sometimes left the pieces feeling overlong or winded. Her damming of the torpedoes in the final climax of the Totentanz was welcome and exciting, but in the Nocturnes, and the lieder transcriptions, it was just...a little too much excitement.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Leif Ove Andsnes Review

Leif Ove Andsnes
Chicago Symphony Center
April 3, 2011

Sonata in C major, Op. 53, "Waldstein"

Four Ballades, Op. 10

"Six Little Pieces"

Sonata in C minor, Op. 111

I'd like to begin this review with a bit of self-effacement.

I am a 27 year old pianist, composer and piano instructor. I don't have a degree from a big name school. I haven't studied extensively with anyone whom you've probably ever heard of. In the broad scheme of things, I'm a reasonably good pianist, but I have my own limitations. So, when it comes to writing any kind of criticism about any kind of musician, I have to ask myself what I'm doing. What gives me, or any critic, the right to mount a platform and espouse an opinion about someone who could probably (heh) execute anything they choose to better? Who am I to say that my understanding of the artistic ideal is ever a valid supposition? I'm going to be straightforward: I am an active, detail-oriented listener. I have a very good memory and I am reasonably well educated in the field of western music. But I have to call everything into question when I write a review about a musician like Andsnes. I write this review with an informal tone because I have to. I wish I were good enough to be able to give myself a review I could be proud of. Who knows, at the end of the day, I might be better off keeping my mouth shut and using my time to try implementing some of the things I'm about to say in my own playing.

I first became acquainted with Andsnes when I heard one of his recordings on the radio. It was his recording of the Haydn B minor piano sonata. The speaker, whose occupation I'm forgetting, was asked what his favorite recording was, and he cited that one. It was perhaps one of the first times that I had ever heard something that I would classify as a "perfect" recording.

Never in my life had I heard that level of clarity at high speed (the "presto" third movement) in classical repertoire pulled off with such poise. I was astonished. Naturally, when I heard that he would be playing Brahms' second piano concerto with the CSO this year, I jumped at the chance to hear him.

That Brahms concert was in a word...tantalizing. I heard incredible and outstanding detail in the solo sections, and the combination of having full orchestra alternating with such a touchingly delicate solo performance whetted my appetite to hear his solo playing immensely. To close before moving on, the only thing that could be said against that Brahms concert was that there wasn't enough Andsnes!

Now, moving on to the solo concert this Sunday.

I'd like to preface my first comment with an adage one of my college composition teachers put to me. "Whether we like to admit it or not, music performance is a theatrical event. The visual matters."

Andsnes walked on stage wearing a black, single-breasted suit, a white shirt with a spread collar and a black necktie. I don't remember what he wore for the Brahms, but my first impression of Sunday's concert was that he looked as though he had dressed for exactly the middle of the road. His shoes were not ostentatiously shiny, the cut of his suit was well-suited for his body, but not remarkable. There was nothing out of place with his hair, he had all of it, and it was perfect. Neither understated, nor overstated, it made the statement that it chooses to make no statement. Andsnes' concert manner was polite, dignified, and unruffled. Neat, trim and calm, he had no outward appearance of "artist pathos" or any overindulgence, self-absorption or anything of any kind. There was no extraneous motion during his performance, and his countenance was perfectly appropriate to what was going on the music at the time.

Usually artists show up on stage wearing outfits which call attention to themselves. Sometimes they wear standards, or flat-colored, unobtrusive outfits which can hide from the eye, or which shift the focus away from them and onto the piano. I could go on about what I saw for quite a while, but my first overall impression was very strongly affected by his looks–by what I saw. And what I saw was a person who could easily have been any kind of professional of any field, working anywhere in the world at any time in the last 20 years.

That, in itself, was unusual.

Then he played.

Probably the first thing I noticed with the Waldstein was the beauty of his sound. The double octaves at the end of the sections, every chord capped with an octave, every octave, every scalar passage, repeated chord passages, broken chord passages, everything was perfectly balanced in terms of sound. The level of polish in his playing was as high as anyone could ask for. However, after the first movement was about two-thirds over, I stopped being astonished, and began to take his endlessly polished tone for granted. I turned off my "piano teacher as audiophile" ears and started listening to what one might call "the bigger picture".

Without getting out my score of the sonata and giving you measure numbers I can say that there were several moments (and this is the part where I don't need to remind you that music criticism is perhaps one of the five most subjective things anyone can do) where a section would end, and the next would happen–suddenly. In the first movement, between the very large sections (and anyone who has played that movement will tell you how imminently possible it is to lose focus of the music's trajectory through the tempo changes of the two themes, and the sheer length), there were several moments where I was left feeling like saying, "Well! That transition was abrupt."

Beethoven originally intended a long series of variations for use as the second movement but they were eschewed in favor of the improvisatory movement included. For me, the second movement is purely an emotional experience. Its main impression is conveyed through the intensity of its pathos and the changes in color. Beethoven probably thought it up one night while he was improvising, wrote it down and polished it. It is no great (compared to the outer movements) structural achievement in itself.

His perfect sound notwithstanding, the second movement was agonizing for me to follow. Not to listen to, to follow. I left it feeling like everywhere when the music could have been allowed extra time to breathe, he gave it either no breath or or too little. The free flowing feel of an improvisation was not there at all. As he played, he made me wonder if he's ever improvised before.

In improvisations, because the music is made up on the spot, there are necessarily passages where the improvisor allows himself time to think. Remember those spots I mentioned earlier where the music needed unaccounted-for time to breathe? The good improvisor specifically, intentionally creates those moments so that he can think of what he's going to do next. Mr. Andsnes clean missed that point. At the end of the second movement, I was terrified to think of what he was going to do in the second movement of the last sonata.

Now, the third movement of opus 53 is a colorful, bombastic rondo with all kinds of great contrast and other goodies in it. Individually, he pulled off the parts (the episodes and the recapitulations of the main theme) very well, but again, between the sections, I was left feeling like he was lacking freedom, or that things were happening too abruptly. The ending of the sonata (and if you have the score out in front of you, you'll understand how easily this can become a problem) was entirely unsuccessful for the same reason the second movement felt disjointed. It was like those pianissimo chords just snuck up on him, like he didn't see the last page coming.

The Brahms was very successful, but it made the first half of his program too long. Again, his phrasing and articulative prowess were in full force, and the result was sonically glorious, but in the 25 or so minutes that these pieces took to go through I looked past Andsnes' golden sound and listened to his manipulation of the larger parts of these works. I started to feel myself growing anxious whenever an emotionally charged transition would take place–Is he going to cut it (us) short? I found myself thinking thoughts like, "I know these are pretty young Brahms pieces, but gosh, that sure sounds like a lot of cadences." Or, "Is he going to set us up to expect a glorious execution of this next moment only to dash us with cold water again?" I felt like he was missing the broader ideas about what was driving the storytelling in these "ballades". When themes and subjects returned, they always came back abruptly, with an emotional (not dynamic) bang, so to speak. He left me wondering if he knew what these pieces were about.

The Schöenberg was perfect. Nothing more to say. The pieces are beautiful ideas fleshed out as far as is possible for "atonal" music, and for "six little pieces", I think they are perfect pieces. He was matchless. (I wonder how many of the people in the audience would agree with me.)

The final sonata on his program, the last Beethoven sonata, is indisputably one of the most profound utterances in occidental music. It begins with a searching and meandering introduction which leads to a movement that is straightforward Sturm und Drang. The second movement is an ascension of the spirit from earthly bounds into heaven.

There is nothing to say about how Andsnes' played the first movement, except that he added a low c at the end. (Beethoven could not possibly have written that C. It wasn't anywhere near being on any of the available pianos at the time. I don't object to adding notes outside of range when the music calls for it, but in my humble opinion that one stuck out because of its anachronism.)

The second movement? Ah, the second movement. I am certain that it wouldn't be fair to start making conjectures on why a pianist of Andsnes' stature would fail to make a convincing interpretation in these Beethoven sonatas so I won't. I just know that in the second movement, as in the second movement of the earlier sonata, (and to a lesser degree in the Brahms cycle) in the works as a whole, he didn't make them sound like whole, complete works. On the microscopic level, it felt like he didn't always understand how or why one moment led to another.

In these works, Andsnes' playing was a shining example of beautiful trees which somehow, confusingly, somehow failed to make a convincing forest.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: Paul Lewis, February 13, 2011

Paul Lewis, Piano
Sunday February 13, 3pm
Chicago Symphony Center

All Schubert program:

Piano Sonata in C, D. 840


Three Piano Pieces, D. 946

•E flat Minor: Allegro Assai
•E flat Major: Allegretto
•C Major: Allegro

Sonata in D Major, D. 850

•Allegro vivace
•Con moto
•Scherzo: Allegro vivace
•Rondo: Allegro moderato

Paul Lewis is a pianist I have never seen before. I have never heard any of his recordings. Until I saw the show bill advertising his concerts, I never even heard of his name. He strode to the piano, bowed politely, played, and then sauntered off with a vaguely self-satisfied countenance. At the end of the concert, he was called back four times. In a town where practically every visiting artist gets a standing ovation, he deserved his. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone realized it. 

The "late" Schubert sonata with which Lewis opened his program I've only heard once, in part (ironically). (If you don't already know this, most instrumental sonatas are at least three movements long, and this sonata, composed in 1825, was left incomplete and abandoned when he switched his efforts to composing the A minor sonata, D. 845.) Structurally, the A minor sonata is a shorter, and vastly superior work to D. 840, and one may conjecture that both the higher quality of the A minor sonata andthe fact that the C major sonata were abandoned were because of Schubert's coming to terms with his weakness in dealing with large forms. 

What do we mean by "weakness"? Without getting into a formal analysis, the best way to describe structural weakness is by comparison to something which is structurally sound, or more tautly constructed: A tight piece never leaves you feeling as though there were something left unsaid, or forgotten. You're never left thinking, "My, that little part here was nice, I wish I could have heard it again." In a tight piece, the ideas presented may not be numerous, but they are fully explored. They are allowed to express themselves in the best ways in which they can be expressed, and then the piece comes to a close. 

At the risk of sounding like Corinthians 13, a strong piece never feels like it rambles without cause. A strong piece never repeats itself in the exact same way. A strong piece has both variety and unity. You never get into the movement of a strong piece and think, "This is getting a bit long." 

Paul Lewis opened his program with, structurally, an extremely weak piece. Speaking as a performer, I can tell you that one of the greatest difficulties in projecting a piece like that is in maintaining enough variety in the performance to keep the audience's interest. It requires many skills to sustain interest in music like this, and Lewis' technique is perfectly suited to this music. His understanding of registration (using the different acoustic properties of the different registers of the piano), balance and color makes him possibly one of the best performers to assign a work like this. As a listener, however, I didn't get a strong sense of a personality which went beyond the clear phrasing, sharply outlined and subtly shifting colors, and warmth. It might have been that his concert presence wasn't sufficient to command the attention necessary in these pieces. It may have been that he was simply off his concentration that afternoon. (It can be hard to get "geared up" for a 3pm Sunday afternoon performance.) Whatever it was, one of my first thoughts after hearing D. 840 was, "His kind of skill is wasted on that piece. He'd get much better results playing Debussy or late Beethoven or even Chopin with control like that." 

The D major sonata had delightful moments in its composition, and was overall a more successful (emphasis on more) work, but it still suffered from the same sort of weaknesses as the C major sonata: Long windedness, excess repetition, etc. 

This concert season Lewis is presenting all of the "mature" Schubert piano works, and in my opinion, it's a very noble experiment. (Prohibition reference intended.) No great artist living or dead whom I can recall has attempted such a thing, and perhaps this is telling. Perhaps the reason Schubert left D. 840, at least eight other piano sonatas, a symphony and innumerable other works spread out over the course of his life all incomplete is because he was finding himself writing music that doesn't "work" and couldn't be successfully performed in completion. Like the three-minute mile, maybe projecting these pieces successfully can't be done. 

The greatest challenge in performing the large works of Schubert is in making a performance which overcomes the weaknesses of the works themselves. In the three short pieces, and in the better constructed shorter movements of the sonatas, Lewis was as perfect as could be. But as skilled as he was, he didn't have it in him to hold the unwieldiest parts of these sonatas together. To be frank, I don't know who could.