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The Pulse and the Revolution

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
05/19/2015 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Italian Concerto, BVW 971
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Chôros No. 5 “Alma Brasileira” – Ciclo Brasileiro: “Impressões Seresteiros” & “Dança do Índio Branco”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in G Major, Opus 31, No. 1
Alexander Scriabin: Etudes, Opus 8, No. 4, No. 8 & No. 12
Maurice Ravel: Miroirs: “Une barque sur l’océan”

Simone Leitão (Pianist)

S. Leitão (© Rodrigo Lopes)

Whatever the merits of Simone Leitão’s concert, two events made it utterly worthwhile.

First, after the Bach Italian Concerto, she played a Scriabin étude–and dumped her shoe on the floor. After the next two etudes, she shook off her second shoe and continued the recital.

If you’re gonna tackle Ravel and Beethoven and Villa-Lobos, ya sure better be comfortable–from the top of the keyboard to the basest footnotes!

The second event was her only encore. Not Villa-Lobos, not a pleasant Chopin waltz. Instead, Ms Leitão launched into the great Chilean revolutionary song, El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!, along with a few of Frederic Rzewski’s Red flag-waving variations. I doubt if many in the bourgeois Brazilian audience last night understood the import of what she was playing, but I was ready to stand up and march!!

Then again, Ms. Leitão is Brazilian, and while she resides in New York, there’s no way to wipe out that iconoclastic, singular spirit emanating from her home country.

This certainly was true for her all too few Villa-Lobos selection. Three is never enough, for Villa-Lobos’ prodigality always astounds. Much of his orchestral music is mediocre, but his piano pieces are unfailingly fierce, difficult and stimulating. Most singular of all, just as Medieval music had a Catholic-chant cantus firmus, Villa-Lobos hides, even in the most tumultuous music, a Brazilian pulse, a meter, throbbing under each work.

Obviously, Ms. Leitão understands that. This was my first encounter with her playing, and while she has learned her fluent technique both in Europe and America, and while her artistry is innate, there was something about the Villa-Lobos which made her stand out. This was certainly true in her first piece, Alma Brasileira, the Brazilian soul. The difficulties were twofold. First, to control that pacing, going from rhythmic to the ruminating center and back again. And her control was faultless.

The second challenge was more interesting. I had learned the word saudade when living in Macao, from homesick Portuguese, and (what could be vaguely translated as) nostalgia was in each measure here.

The two other Villa-Lobos pieces were more dance-like, but very difficult. They were played with exuberance, yet always with a style and with that sometimes gentle sometimes exciting pulse.

The other work with that underlying throbbing and pulling was of course Ravel’s Une barque sur l’océan, which I always felt was the wrong title. We don’t see the boat so much as the ocean, and Ms. Leitão let her arpeggios sweep the ocean widely with both passion and precision

Not a musical but historic revelation were the three Scriabin etudes. Is this really the centenary of his death?? Nobody pays much attention to it. Ms. Leitão did, and her first two etudes from Opus 8 were played with Chopinesque grace. Still, simply following with the last of the Opus 8 series always does a disservice, since this is written with such grandeur it puts the others in the shade.

Ms. Leitão’s verve and intensity was not always apparent. She apparently takes great pride in her performances of Johann Sebastian Bach, and her newest recording is devoted to him. Her Italian Concerto, however, I found empty, almost academic. Partly it may have been due to the resonance of Weill Recital Hall, partly the tumultuous applause after each movement. (For the latter, she simply started to play despite the clamor.)

More important, I never felt the elegance of the piece. There are times when harpsichord music sounds fine on the piano, yet here I never felt the delicate intertwining of lines, never felt the transparency of the counterpoint. It was a good chunky performance, not great Bach by any means.

The Beethoven G Major Sonata, the first of the three Opus 31 Sonatas, has a lovely second movement which was played with a bel canto delicacy. But the outer movements, filled with Beethoven’s wit, his self-parody–and no shortage of difficult passages–never seemed to get off the ground. One could feel the mechanics of her playing, one almost felt that each measure had been practiced and over-practiced.

Evidently this has to be true for every pianist. But one must give the impression that Beethoven was having Promethean fun and tricks. Ms. Leitão rarely allowed the yeast to rise.

Still, only the mediocre play everything at its best. Whatever the shortcomings I felt in the Bach and Beethoven was easily redeemed with the most “eccentric” pieces–as well as that most stunning revolutionary encore.

Harry Rolnick



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