Serendipity at Merrill

Pianist Lukáš Vondráček
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 7, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

Portland Ovations has a way of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. When Russian pianist Behzod Abduraimov couldn’t travel to Merrill Auditorium on Jan. 7, they were able to book a noted Czech pianist, Lukáš Vondráček, as a substitute.

I can’t compare the two, but Vondráček’s program was first rate, and attracted a large audience for a concert on a cold winter’s day. That it featured two of my favorite long works for piano was an added bonus.

The first was the great Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, written when he was 20. Full of youthful exuberance and extravagantly Romantic, it contains enough beautiful melodies for five later symphonies, when the composer was not so profligate with his inspirations.

I found the performance, while technically flawless, vaguely disappointing. The melodies were all there, in perfect order, including one of the most noble marches in music (in the final movement), but their developments seemed to lack continuity. It was not the pianist’s melodic sense, he had that in spades for the last work on the program, or his dynamics, which had a wide range.

Not to put too fine a point on it, there were too many climaxes, a failing of the youthful Brahms, amplified by Vondráček’s inserting a tiny pause in front of each climactic chord, in order to amplify it. A little of this habit goes a long way.

It was still quite wonderful to hear again. My slight disappointment may also have been due to ownership of the definitive Julius Katchen recording of 1950, after which the interpretation of Brahms went downhill.

After intermission came “Memories” (Op. 6) by Czech composer Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949), late Romantic impressions that were pleasant to hear but less than earth-shaking after what had preceded them..

The final work was also a substitution—of Schubert’s final Sonata in B-flat Major (1828) for the Schumann “Carnival.” A wise choice.

It was “of a divine length,” but like the composer, one didn’t want it to stop, no matter how many modulations and transformations buffeted the final theme, which ends ferociously only when Schubert decides that he has had enough.

The fast movements were very fast, and the slow ones slow, but the balance was almost perfect. Vondráček’s fine melodic sense was revealed in the second movement, with a theme that rivals Brahms in its profundity, and was as beautifully sung as something can be on the piano.

The Schubert earned a deserved standing ovation. There was no encore, which would have been an anti-climax.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at