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Pictures at an 18th Century Salon

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/17/2019 -  
Luis de Freitas Branco: Ten Prelúdios
Claude Debussy: Préludes, Book I
Modeste Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Vasco Dantas (Pianist)

V. Dantas (© Teresa Pamplona)

“Rosalind: O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou
didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But
it cannot be sounded: my affection hath an unknown
bottom, like the bay of Portugal

William Shakespeare, As You Like it

Oh, Christ! it is a goodly sight to see
What Heaven hath done for this delicious land!
What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree!
What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!!

George Gordon Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

When hearing that a Portuguese pianist was giving a recital this afternoon, my heart soared like Lord Byron’s poetry, printed above, on his first visit to Lisbon. Would Maria João Pires, my absolute favorite Chopin performer, be finally coming to New York?

Alas, Ms. Pires was not on board. But her fellow Lusitanian, Vasco Dantas, was giving his New York premiere here, playing the music of a noted Portuguese musicologist and composer, one Luis de Freitas Branco. Mr. Freitas Branco was a tabula branco to me as was Mr. Dantas, but his youthful countenance was belied by an amazing two-page synopsis of his experience.

Experience which grew from a Portuguese childhood and studies in London, Paris and Germany to a remarkable number of concerts on virtually every continent. Add to this a program totally based on musical pictures, with ten preludes by an unknown Portuguese composer...

And the setting? The gorgeous baroque Weill Recital Hall, its crystal chandeliers and ivory-colored curlicued walls, were the settings of Portugal itself in its golden 17th Century apogee, the same architecture which can be seen in parts of Macao today.

(“Same”, so long as the barbarian Las Vegas casino-owners haven’t torn it down.)

C. Debussy (at Conservatoire)/F. Branco

Back to the music and Mr. Dantas. First, One could say that he played 30 different pieces in his two-hour recital. After the intermission, Mussorgsky’s Pictures. Before that, Mr. Dantas introduced the music of Freitas Branco, by alternating Debussy’s Book One Préludes with the Portuguese ten Prelúdios.

This was not a bad choice. True, Debussy, who lived from 1862-1918, was a generation above Freitas Branco, from 1890-1955. But the latter was a fairly conservative composer, and his “exotic” passages–whole tone melodies, faintly Asian melodies–had been Debussy trademarks long before that.

Mr. Dantas, with his slightly formal words and his swallowtail jacket, played both composers with limpid assurance. One doesn’t think of his fine technique, because he was always searching for the melodic undercurrent. Nothing was idiosyncratic in the Debussy, and preludes like The Engulfed Cathedral and Sails were taken with great assurance.

Mr. Freitas Branco has a few quirky titles (The Modern Ride of the Valkyries and Rapido, Grande Virtuosidade), but his works dovetailed on Debussy’s. A moderate Kind of Moderato was followed by an impetuous Animato. A sentimental Molto moderato was followed later by a Moto perpetuo etude.

They were all very pleasing, didn’t have an iota of traditional fado tears, and showed the mark of a craftsman, frequently inspired by hints of genius.

In a moment of his own programming genius, Mr. Dantas didn’t end with a bang, but with the delicious whispers of Debussy’s Minstrels.

One can never have enough of Pictures at an Exhibition, for those who can master its massive music. Mr. Dantas did this in style. I can’t say that I could form an image from each picture, but it was terrific music. Yes, I wanted to see more contrast between “rich Jew and poor Jew”, and the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks was heavier than the surrealistic title.

Yet that was Mr. Dantas’ choice, and he made good use of it. The final Great Gate of Kiev was played with all the power necessary, ending (prior to an encore of variations on a Portuguese song) with a triumphant set of flourishes.

By the way, the Great Gate of Kiev never existed. Like Mr. Trump’s Wall, it existed only in the mind. Painter Hartmann, composer Mussorgsky and pianist Dantas built it up to sheer power and monumental grandeur.

Harry Rolnick



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