So You Want to Play a Fugue?
Buttenweiser Hall at the 92 Street Y
Felix Mendelssohn: Preludes and Fugues, op. 35: No. 1 in E minor, No. 2 in D Major, No. 3 in B minor & No. 6 in B-flat Major
Leonard Bernstein: Touches: Chorale, Eigth Variations and Coda
Michael Brown: Constellations and Toccata
Ludwig van Beethoven: Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major, Op. 35
Michael Brown (piano)
The third season of the series which presents to New York audiences young pianists selected and recommended by the great Hungarian pianist Sir András Schiff came to its conclusion this season with the performance of New York based Michael Brown. His recital was a little of an anomaly, for unlike the other five pianists performing at Buttenweiser Hall over the last two seasons, Mr. Brown is a well-known and already distinguished performer in NYC. That is not to say he did not deserve being chosen by the great artist whose recommendation should, in my opinion, open even more doors to young pianists than having some minor management.
His ubiquitous presence on the NY scene is both welcomed and very well deserved. Mr. Brown has already earned such honors as an Avery Fisher Career Grant and was the winner of both the 2010 Concert Artists Guild Victor Elmaleh Competition and the 2012 Juilliard School Willian Petschek Piano Debut Recital Award; the first one allowed for a solo recital at Carnegie’s Weill Hall, while the second, only a few months later, resulted in an even more prestigious recital at Alice Tully Hall. His talent was also recognized by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center which put him on the prestigious roster of CMS Two. He is also one among the few of high-profile pianists who is a frequently performed composer; predictably his recital included also his composition Constellations and Toccata.
Mr. Brown devised an intriguing program juxtaposing the rarely performed Mendelssohn Preludes and Fugues op. 35 with contemporary works (his own and that of Leonard Bernstein). The underlying theme was, as we heard, that of fugue and variation: a very clever concept representing a thinking pianist rather than the more typical Juilliard-graduate-virtuoso.
Hearing Mr. Brown’s traversal of four out of the Six Preludes and Fugues op. 35 by Mendelssohn, one was left wondering why those wonderful pieces almost never appear on recital programs. Yes, such virtuosos of the past as Bolet, Cherkassky, Rudolf Serkin or more recently Murray Perahia used to open their programs with the first of the pair in that collection, the well-known one in E minor. The rest of the six remain, however, to be explored and perhaps Mr. Brown’s brave traversal will call their attention to other pianists looking perhaps for immensely rewarding music that is not as hackneyed as say, Beethoven’s Appassionata.
The Mendelssohn pieces were written at various times between 1827-1837 and only later made into a set. The Preludes are generally of a very diverse nature: some remind us of highly elaborated Songs Without Words (perhaps a better description would be “on steroids”), others, such as No. 2 in D Major could be mistaken for one of the Bach Chorale Preludes. The next Prelude, No. 3 in B minor, followed without a pause, is a virtuoso scherzando as elfin as anything Mendelssohn ever wrote: a tour de force which would make for an amazing encore: pianists, are you there? Amazing in its lightness, delicacy and virtuosity was also the performance; the energetic fugue with its dotted, Bachian theme was for me one of the best in the set. The Fugues, though keeping with demands of polyphonic writing such as Bach or Handel, retain that unmistaken character of Mendelssohn: for him, like for Bach, polyphony was second nature and even his earliest compositions were often infused with contrapuntal writing. Not without reason is the first of the fugues considered the best: it is the most developed and complex of all. Our young pianist’s clear, precise technique and delicate touch was an ideal vehicle for this kind of music: each voice was accurately delineated and the clarity of counterpoint was never in doubt.
The first pair was followed by Leonard Bernstein’s Touches (Chorale, Eight Variations and Coda), a work written for the 1981 Van Cliburn Piano Competition. The composer noted that the title is used in both it’s French and English senses. He employs it to indicate, in his own words “the different ways the piano keys can be “touched” by the fingers, from percussively to flowingly, as well as “touches” in the sense of small bits, as each of the variations last from some 20 to little over 90 seconds), and as brief musical manifestations of being “touched” or moved; finally as “gestures of love, especially between composer and performer, performer and listener”. I suppose one could guess the name of the composer from that description alone...
No less interesting of a work was Mr. Brown’s own superbly performed Constellation and Toccata, which followed the Preludes and Fugues No. 2 and 3. The work, as we learned from the artist’s amusing introduction, was written for the pianist’s friend Orion Weiss, who wanted another work for a program consisting of toccatas. Weiss’ name is also that of well-known constellation, one of the most recognizable in the night sky. Here is the composer’s slightly more detailed description, worth noting as it also, in my mind, described very well the excellent performance itself:
“The work is in two parts, with each section drawing inspiration from a different mode of perceiving the universe. The soft, lush, and repeating sonorities in Constellations make up the music I envision for gazing at the night sky: music for hearts and eyes touched by the sheer visible beauty of stars on a clear night. The use of extreme keyboard registers and stagnant and repetitive sonorities creates a shimmering texture. The last gesture evaporates into thin air leading without pause into the Toccata. The Toccata’s opening is all but still, with hushed rumblings that give way to louder, quirkier and more violent outbursts. Running sixteenth notes create a fast perpetual motion, generating a virtuosic flair that snaps the listener out of the spell of the nocturnal sky. This is the universe in the modern age.”
As noted, these words seemed also the best description of the performance itself, which showed a beautiful control of alluring sonorities and was brisling with energy in the Toccata. Using sometimes dissonant sonorities, Brown still achieves most listenable and highly pianistic effects. He joins a small group of pianists-composers (Hamelin, Fazil Say), and thus far he comfortably measures up to any of them.
The program, as always in that series on the short side and played without an intermission, concluded with Beethoven’s mighty Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E-flat, known as Eroica Variations. Here, similarly as in Mendelssohn’s pieces, Mr. Brown strived not as much for a lush sound, but rather for exactitude and precision. His version was laser-focused and crystal clear, intelligent in presenting details and form. One could perhaps wish for more warmth of sound in the penultimate long variation No. 14 but yet, one could not fault pianist’s own unsentimental vision. The grand, powerful fugue, possibly even more difficult than one in the Diabelli Variations, had formidable clarity, precision and transparency.
There was only one encore, Faure’s Third Nocturne lovingly played and demonstrating yet another, dreamier facet of this multi-talented artist.
It seems that Sir András has an unerring sense in choosing his young artists, who impress him sufficiently to help them develop their concert activities. One of them, who has already been chosen for next season’s concerts, Hungarian Zoltán Fejérvári, just became a winner of the prestigious Montreal Piano Competition, proving again that the wise Master rarely errs in his choices.