Tag Archives: Chopin

A Thinking Man’s Pianist

Pianist Richard Goode
Olin Arts Center, Bates College
Oct. 28, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

Pianist Richard Goode is a man of a thousand voices, as was apparent from his recital at Bates’ Olin Arts Center Saturday night.
Goode is a great pianist, as unconventional in his way as the late Glenn Gould, and one of his defining characteristics is the ability to make the piano imitate the instruments of the orchestra, something that stands him in good stead when delineating hitherto unheard voices in familiar works.

The ability showed itself immediately in four preludes and fugues from the second book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” One is accustomed to chasing the theme through its various transformations in a Bach fugue. Goode makes it easy, even with the most long-limbed and Baroque motifs of Book Two. He also reveals relationships between the lines more clearly than anyone I have heard since Walter Gieseking.

Another ability came to the fore in his superlative rendition of the Alban Berg Piano Sonata, Op. 1, (ca. 1910)—musical intelligence. Listening to Goode’s interpretation revealed structure and development in a way that made the work effective musically, something that analysis never accomplishes.

The Berg was followed by one of Beethoven’s weirdest children (a Halloween treat?): the Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101. Maybe the composer was doing penance for the “Moonlight,” but even the indications are a little much,  for example ”Geschwindt, doch nicht zu sehr und mit Entsclossenheit. Allegro,” before the final movement. (Rapidly but not too much so, and with determination.”)
Goode made it sound even more strange than it is. Good or bad, it was certainly an unconventional reading, but with Beethoven’s characteristic abrupt changes in mood and dynamics. (Goode’s dynamics, for Sunday evening at least, ranged from mp to fff, sometimes in the same second, with the Steinway in brilliant mode.)

HIs iconoclastic approach, while still exciting, was not as successful in the second half of the program, devoted entirely to Chopin. Nevertheless, his unsentimental renditions brought out the musical, rather than emotional, beauties of the works. The four Mazurkas managed to combine danceable rhythms with the complexity of the Bach preludes heard earlier.

Merely following the tempo indications of the familiar Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. 47) was unusual enough.  In every example on the program Goode tossed off the most fantastic of Chopin’s elaborate ornamentations gracefully and in tempo.

The final work on the program, the great Barcarolle in F-sharp major (Op. 60) sounded like the gondolier was competing at Henle. (I couldn’t resist, but the tempo was a little fast for traditional ears.)

That said, it was absolutely wonderful. More wonderful still is the fact that the pianist actually found the real climax of the piece and never approached it again, no matter how tempting the later surges became. This is something rare in virtuoso pianists, no matter what their reputation.

It resulted in a sanding ovation from the large audience, and an encore of a William Byrd Pavane and Gailiarde, which presage both Bach and Chopin.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Pianist Excels at Franco Center Recital

Franco Center Piano Series
Christopher Staknys
Franco Center, Lewiston
Jan. 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

At the advanced age of 20, pianist Christopher Staknys has already performed three times at the popular piano series of the Franco Center in Lewiston. The first time, at the age of ten, he had just broken his right arm and played his own composition for the left hand alone.

Probably just a coincidence, but the young pianist’s most successful rendition on Friday evening was the Sonata-Fantasy in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19, of Alexander Scriabin, best known for his Nocturne for the left hand.

Scriabin’s early piano works are heavily influenced by Chopin, but more virtuosic. The sonata, like those of Chopin, requires a master to bring out the internal voices amidst a Russian snowstorm of notes.

Staknys was more than up to the task,  in a well-balanced performance that, in the final presto, seemed like bolts of lightning inside a dark thundercloud.

Staknys, who lives in Falmouth and is now attending Juilliard, may have been nervous at the beginning of the concert, since he attacked the Mozart Sonata No. 8 in A Minor (KV 310) like a falcon dive-bombing a pigeon.

It was fascinating to hear. No one should be able to play that fast and furious without making a single mistake. “No, he can’t possibly negotiate that passage correctly at that speed!” But he does. Miraculous, but unfortunately not Mozart.

The accelerator was slightly less depressed in three waltzes from Chopin’s Opus 34, but they still sounded like Godowsky transcriptions of Strauss. The best was No. 2 in A Minor, which demands some thoughtful melancholy.

During the first half of the program, the young pianist was most at home in “Ondine,” from Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” with its sparkling sprays of water flicked off by the nymph of the title, who is trying to get the poet to come with her to her palace under the lake.
A little more contrast of moods, from playful through Romantic to pouting (when the poet refuses her), would have been ideal, but the entire portrait was brilliant and technically flawless.

The second half began with two original preludes, dedicated to the pianist’s mother. They were reminiscent of Scriabin as well in their tonal ambiguity, if not in their playfulness.

A Schubert Allegretto in A-flat Major, No. 6 of Moments Musicaux, Op. 94 (D. 780), demonstrated what Staknys could do with a more relaxed and thoughtful approach. It was gorgeous, especially the certainty of voices in the ever-modulating chords.

The encore was a set of improvisations on “Over the Rainbow,” with a reference to “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” appropriate to Inauguration Day. The occasion may have influenced attendance, but there should have been many more in the hall. A fine concert, crepes and wine at intermission and champagne and conversation with the artist afterward. What could be better than that?

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

The Sea and Chopin at Portland Symphony

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Jan. 15, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

If every member of the overflow audience at Sunday’s Portland Symphony Orchestra concert tells a friend about the experience, there should be no problem selling out classical music events in the future. The program had something for everyone, from arch-Romantics to Maine seafaring types.

The orchestra was in good form and enthusiastic, under the direction of guest conductor David Neely.

The first two works were Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes,” (Op. 33a), and Debussy’s “La Mer,” two of the finest depictions of the sea in all her moods since Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Sea and Sinbad.”

Both are spectacular in different ways. Debussy’s imagery is pantheistic. Man is merely a witness to the dialog of wind and wave. Britten, on the other hand, is supreme in his sketches of the ocean in relation to the shore and its inhabitants.

Even the reverberation of the Sunday bells, in the seaside village of his opera, has something moving and fluid about it. The irregular knocking of choppy seas on the hull can never be bettered, and the final descent of Grimes’ boat into the depths reminds one of Turner’s stormy seascapes.

Britten’s use of orchestra color is astounding, and always effective. Neely and the orchestra made the most of it. One minor shift in the pitch of the timpani spoke volumes, instantly altering the mood like a sudden fog bank.

While Britten’s Interludes are vignettes, Debussy takes a longer view, sometimes teasing,  in building up the sparkle of small wavelets and the “breeze that will be whispering at all hours” into a glorious crashing climax, which must have made every surfer long for Hawaii, or at least Costa Rica. Another argument, if one is needed, for the primacy of live music.

Pianist Diane Walsh’s sensitive performance of the Chopin Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (Op. 21) was a throwback to a salon concert of the 1800’s. Somehow tuner Matt Guggenheim made the Steinway sound like a Pleyel, or maybe it was just Walsh’s touch in the high treble. I could listen to her string-of-pearls portamento scales and passage-work forever.

The pianist’s independence reminded me of harpsichordist Wanda Landowska—‘You play Bach your way and I’ll play it his way.” She demanded space for her interpretation and got it. For the most part, the orchestra in a Chopin concerto is an accompaniment, but it sometimes asserts itself in surprising ways. A horn call in the third movement jolted people out of their seats, like a racehorse hearing the post, and the climax got a bit muddy, but who cares? It was a magical transportation back in time, complete with an encore of Liszt’s “La Campanella,” which I never thought to hear again in my lifetime.

Both concerto and encore got a well-deserved standing ovation.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

True Virtuosity at the Franco Center

Igor Lovchinsky
Franco Center, Lewiston
Nov. 11, 2016
by Christopher Hyde

A detour caused by a traffic accident on Route 9 made us late getting to Lewiston’s Franco Center for a recital by Russian-American pianist Igor Lovchinsky. I was sorry to have missed his performance of two popular works by Ravel, but if his interpretation of other masters is any indication, the Ravel must have been spectacular.

Lovchinsky has the bravura technique of Horowitz, without the attitude. What other young concert pianist is about to receive his doctorate in physics from Harvard?

He was introduced to the Franco Center’s piano concert series when he joined Matthew Graybil for the New England premiere of Walter Piston’s Concerto for Two Pianos Solis.

Although Lovchinsky can spin cascades of notes with the best of them, his technique is at the service of an innate musicality. This was particularly evident in his rendition of the Prokofiev Sonata No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 29, in which the development of the themes was always audible through the thunder and lightning. Prokofiev’s unique voice, in which he sometimes seems to be mocking the virtuoso tradition, came through loud and clear, with echoes of both “Peter and the Wolf” and his piano suite “Visions Fugitives.”

After intermission, the pianist showed why he has become a noted interpreter of Chopin, winning the National Chopin competition of the Kosciuskko Foundation at the age of 19. His renditions of the Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp Minor (Op. post.) and the Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 29, were intimate, without taking overly Romantic liberties. As Chopin recommended, the left hand always marched, no matter the rubato of the right.

The great Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52, demonstrated both overwhelming power and perfectly timed development toward the climactic measures. (Both of them.).

I mentioned Horowitz at the beginning because of Lovchinsky’s programming of two fiendishly difficult works by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) — “The Skylark,” based on a song by Glinka, and his Oriental Fantasy “Islamey.” They reminded me of similar impossible show pieces (played by Horowitz) by Alkan or Godowsky.

The difficulty of “Islamey,” which has been adopted by many famous pianists, can be gauged by the fact that Scriabin injured his hand practicing it.

It is based on three Circassian themes which sound strangely like Alexander Borodin, but decorated so lavishly that they almost disappear. That they were perceptible among Lovchinsky’s coruscating fountains of notes, is a greater accomplishment than being able to execute the ornaments themselves.

Having been to concerts of this series in the past, I was not surprised by the caliber of the music but by the relatively small size of the audience. Where else in Maine can one experience world-class performances, for a very low ticket price, in a fine concert hall, have delicious crepes at intermission and share a glass of champagne with the artist afterward? Unfortunately, the next event in the series won’t be until January 20, with Maine pianist Christopher Staknys.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” Does Not Disappoint

Oratorio Chorale
Woodfords Congregational Church
Nov. 21, 2015
by Christopher Hyde

The Oratorio Chorale’s “Prodigies” concert, Saturday night at Woodfords Congregational Church, examined many aspects of that vexed question, while presenting each in the best possible light. Director Emily Isaacson has mastered the art of combining chorus and orchestra, and the Maine Chamber Ensemble sounded the best it has in years.

The program opened with a work by a child prodigy, Henry Purcell, (1659-1695), written, however, when his genius had fully matured. His “Oh Sing Unto the Lord,” (1688) often sounded like Handel, but more complex (and a little better written). The vocal part is extremely difficult, with the chorus treated as an orchestra, offering varied instrumental combinations. It was written in a day when British households entertained themselves by singing seven-part madrigals.

The orchestral “symphony” itself is also brilliant, both at setting off the choral and recitative sections, and solo, with fugal writing that seems to come as easily to Purcell as to Bach.

It was followed by a premiere of “The Window,” a setting of a poem by Conrad Aiken, written by Christopher Stacknys (b. 1997) of Falmouth, now a sophomore at the Juilliard School. The composition was quite professional in its cycling from harmony to dissonance and back.

His musicality, however, was called into question by a performance of the first movement of the Chopin Concerto No. 1 in E minor. After a lovely opening by the string orchestra, the piano came in like a bull in a china shop, Stacknys apparently overcompensating for the acoustics of an unknown venue.

The performance was brilliant, too fast, and technically flawless. The music got lost in a cloud of notes. A concerto is always a contest between the soloist and the conductor; in this case, Isaacson lost the battle for control of tempo. The large audience loved it.

The two anthems by Mendelssohn (1809-1847), which followed intermission, “Jesu meine Freude” (1828) and “Christie, du Lamm Gottes” (1827) were delightful, lively and perfectly balanced. Any resemblance to the work of J.S. Bach, which the 18-year-old composer had been studying intensely, was purely intentional.

Isaacson saved he most astounding feat for last, a “Te Deum” (1769) written by Mozart when he was 13. He could orchestrate, write fugues, and invent choral harmonies which neither Bach nor Purcell would have disowned. He is one of the great composers whom we can honestly regret losing at an early age.

The concert will be repeated today (Sunday, Nov. 22) at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Brunswick, at 3:00 and 6:00 p.m.

Rafal Blechacz at Merrill

Portland Ovations Concert
Pianist Rafał Blechacz
Merrill Auditorium
Oct. 4, 2015

The playing of Gilmore Award-winning pianist Rafał Blechacz, brought to Merrill Auditorium Sunday by Portland Ovations, was characterized by clarity, precision and elegance. His program was characterized by daring.

What other pianist in this day and age would program a recital to include works that everyone in the audience had heard hundreds of times and perhaps played themselves? It is to invite comparison with Rubinstein, Horowitz and Dinu Lipatti (for the Chopin waltzes). But Blechacz showed that he could hold his own in such company, while introducing some new ideas.

A critic once said that abstract expressionists should submit a test painting to show that they could execute works in traditional style, reassuring viewers that their more characteristic work was not mere scribbling. Blechacz opened with a first movement of the Bach ”Italian” Concerto in F Major (BWV 971) that was a model of decorum in its precise rhythm, sharp delineation of melodic lines and restrained dynamics (besides being breathtakingly beautiful.)

The slow movement departed from the usual Bach renditions in its coloration and dreamy style, while the third took off in a long accelerando that, although not in the score, added significantly to the excitement of the work. Bach, not having the piano’s dynamic range on the harpsichord or clavichord, might have done exactly the same thing, as if carried away on a torrent of notes.

Innovations were even more pronounced in the following Beethoven Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”). I have a score on which my teacher has written “Sforzando very important in Beethoven!” Blechacz has that explosion of sound down pat. He also lets the notes of the chord ring out, so that what comes after seems like the coalescence of the overtones; raindrops into a flowing stream. If that requires a fermata (pause) that seems to last forever, so be it.

The famous slow movement included the central theme over a heavily accented waltz that sounds like elephants dancing, if it’s played right, and a glorious finale that, as in the Bach, had more than a hint of accelerando.

Following intermission, the program, as befits a Polish pianist, was all Chopin, beginning with the Opus 64 Waltzes, the most famous of which is the “Minute Waltz.” I didn’t have my stopwatch out, but I’m sure that Blechacz met the requirement without losing any of his grace under pressure.

The coloration and shading of that miniature, as well as the two others in the set, were exquisite. Rubinstein used to say that some, at least, were not for dancing, but Blechacz conjured up a ballroom as active and varied as any for an evening of Strauss. The late Dinu Lipatti was the acknowledged master of these effusions, but in these three at least, Blechacz is his equal.

I very much regret that I am not able to appreciate the Chopin Mazurkas as I should. If anything could overcome that deficiency, it would have been Sunday’s performance of the three in Opus 56, with their fine coloring, subtle exchange of voices and authentic rhythmical structure.

The Polonaise is another matter, especially the A-flat Major, Opus 53 (’Til the end of time…”) which, after all these years, is still enough to wake the dead, and cause instant, foot stomping standing ovations. Blechacz has the power and precision of Horowitz, with a little more finesse.

As a final act of daring, Blechacz played the Brahms Intermezzo in A Major, Opus 118, No. 2, as an encore. There is nothing showy about it. It is simply one of the most inspired works for piano ever written, and one of the most difficult to interpret. I would trade all of Wagner for it. Last summer, at a Bates College memorial service, Duncan Cumming played it as an appropriate tribute to his teacher, Frank Glazer.