On integration of words and music works
Buttenwieser Hall at 92nd Street Y
Johannes Brahms: Four Ballades, Op. 10
Thomas Adès: Darknesse Visible
Fryderyk Chopin: Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52
Robert Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op. 16
Benjamin Hochman (piano)
B. Hochman (© Roman Markowicz)
Benjamin Hochman, who earned himself a sterling reputation as an excellent pianist, has not been lately much as a piano soloist and devoted himself instead to conducting – at least when he now leads his own performances from the keyboard he deserves to be called a conductor – so it was interesting to see how that long break from solo performing affected his playing. On the basis of his performance at the Buttenwieser Hall at 92nd Street Y, one may say that not only he was in a good shape but was also able to retain his adoring audience that filled to the brim that smaller, intimate size auditorium, perfectly fitted to host recitals or chamber music concerts.
For his recital Mr. Hochman chose works that show – in his understanding – interrelation of words and music. Included were ballades by Brahms and Chopin, and set of Schumann pieces also inspired by text of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The two works on the program that the composer himself based on the words were by Brahms and Thomas Adès. In case of Brahms, it was the first of his four youthful Ballades op. 10 (he was only 21 when he wrote them), based on an old Scottish ballade Edward. Adès bases his Darkness Visible, 7 minutes long meditation on John Dowland song In Darkness Let Mee Dwell (1610).
It is always interesting to hear Chopin four ballades and imagine what literary work did he exactly have had in his mind. Although it is plausible to attribute a well known ballade by the most famous of Polish poets, Adam Mickiewicz, as a literary source for the last of Chopin’s ballades, the musicologists, let alone Chopin biographers, are not all that united in belief that Chopin was as interested or as influenced by the Polish poetry as some want to believe and/or we give him credit for. Would the Ballade in F Minor be much less perfect or turbulent of a work if there was no connection with Mickiewicz or would Schumann’s Kreisleriana have had less emotional impact if he didn’t respond to E.T.A. Hoffmann musings? That is one of the questions that a skeptical listener had to ask himself when confronted with a program that in a gimmicky fashion also tied Thomas Adès Darkness Visible to Chopin Ballade. Really??? Are we going to perceive the beauty of Chopin’s writing in a different light – or with a different font, to use literary lingo – when the last note of Adès becomes the first note of Chopin. There seems to be nowadays that attention-grabbing trend to tie unrelated musical works to each other and there are music critics who are just ecstatic about it. The end of Ives Unanswered Question and first G Major chord of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4: how revelatory!!!!! Finally we know the meaning of Beethoven!
His approach to anything he performs is generally clear and straightforward, understated and without much room for pretentiousness or affection. All the works received well-articulated readings, there was rarely any exaggeration and the playing itself, with some minute details here and there, was generally clean and tidy. His sound is not particularly plush, penetrating or displaying singing quality, which especially for the works of Schumann and Chopin in mind of this listener created a numerous question marks. The pervasive question was regarding the matter of narration, especially if we create our program around the words. But I suppose that in matter of esthetics this reviewer would still differ with Mr. Hochman even if the program was not designed around the literary connotations. I didn’t detect much breathing space, delineations of musical phrase, singing quality. Yes, the notes were connected to each other creating a legato-effect yet playing legato doesn’t automatically translate into singing on the keyboard. There were numerous interpretive issues that one could argue with, but let’s just say that the performer and his reviewer were not looking upon the score in the same light.
Some of the pieces such as Adès Darkness Visible received a very compelling reading but than again one could wonder how to make the performance of that score un-compelling. It is an interesting interplay of shard like sharp and loud notes and softer tremolos or repeated notes, akin to what can be easier achieved on a string instrument. An interesting experiment in sonorities, without a much substance based on a song is invisible for most of the 7 minutes length and words that keep us in darkness.
Chopin Ballade in F minor, similarly to Brahms ballades, possessed some believable moments and showed Mr. Hochman’s best sound but I missed a real convincing phrasing, a sense of poetry and convincing narration, especially when the program supposed to have been about words i.e. telling the story. That work seemed to tax the technical capacity of the pianist and didn’t show his most fastidious playing.
In the Kreisleriana which closed the program and in which Mr. Hochman lurched with the passion and abandon, there were numerous persuasive moments, interesting details in voicing and detailing inner lines of music. But here I also missed the true vocal line, one that would be sung just as in any of Schumann songs. There were also some moments of anxiety, uneasiness and , especially in the final segment Schnell and spielend some issues with articulation of the dotted rhythm on which the whole movement is based.
It was a very well played recital even though throughout there were numerous interpretive issues that one could argue with: let’s just say that the performer and his reviewer were not looking upon the score from the same angle. After all it often happens that what one listener regards as poetic other may declare to be prosaic. Both deal with the words, don’t they?
The audience greeted the artists with enthusiasm and Mr. Hochman rewarded us with just one lovely and lovingly played encore, Egon Petri’s arrangement of Bach chorale Sheep may safely graze.