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Musical Metempsychoses

New York
07/15/2022 -  
Franz Schubert: Allegretto in C minor, D. 915 – Ungarische Melodie, D. 817 – Liebesbotschaft, D. 957 No.1 – Gretchen am Spinnrade, D. 118 – Ständchen, D. 957 No.4 – Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D. 774 (transcribed/arranged by Franz Liszt)
Amy Beth Kirsten: Prayer for a Wounded King (World Premiere)
Jeff Nichols: Caracole
Arthur Levering: Garland for Steven Stucky: Theme and Variations (World Premiere)

Donald Berman (Pianist)

D. Berman (© Gil Gilbert)

Schubert’s use of vernacular genres—dances, songs, horn calls—is not unlike the vivid scene paintings of Ives and other twentieth century composers. His sense of unfolding drama is cinematic, his pathos enduring.
Donald Berman

A few dozen pianists specialize in so-called “contemporary” music, but Donald Berman is unique. Not only as head of the Charles Ives Society (contemporary? Ives wrote his great music 140 years ago!), finding new works by Carl Ruggles (ditto) and by surveying opuses by virtually every American composer, living and dead.

Yet, as demonstrated last night at BargeMusic, he not an exponent. He is persuasive, humorous (“Each variation is less than a minute long. So if you don’t like one, you might like the next”) and a helluva lively keyboard artist.

But, as he proved several years ago at BargeMusic, his programs have a subconscious, perhaps unconscious thematic arrangement. Mr. Berman doesn’t title his recital, doesn’t choose pieces thematically. Yet the structure of the recital has its own arrangement.

If necessary, I would have named his recital with the Joycean word Metempsychoses. The bookend works were by Schubert. Yet the final pieces were Schubert transformed, by Franz Liszt. A later Garland for Steven Stucky took a few notes, and altered them with countless variations by his friend Arthur Levering. In the chimerically named Prayer for a Wounded King, Amy Beth Kirsten took a single note–the tolling of a bell, perhaps–enriching it and nourishing the music with its developments.

The encore was...well, wait for it.

How did Mr. Berman handle this? First, with an audacious opening. The usual Schubert Allegretto was played with a sepulchral mood. Not simple deliberation but a dark feeling, a kind of Prayer for a Dying Composer. The following Hungarian dance broke the spell, played with a subdued joviality.

My only question was the following Caracole by Jeff Nichols. The title refers–apparently–to the “turning movement of horses” (thank you, Wikipedia). And yes, the atonal work twisted and turned, was played with admirable zest by Mr. Berman. It still reeked of early Schoenberg, wasn’t quite logical on first hearing, though the modified jazzy finale was intriguing enough.

A. Levering/A.B. Kirsten (© Janice Krotty/Amy Beth Kirsten.com)

Amy Beth Kirsten’s Prayer for a Wounded King showed a mind of great craftsmanship. Ms. Kirsten took that single knell on a single note, elaborating and enlarging it, yet retaining the basic sense of a mystical viacticum.

The only words for Arthur Levering’s Garland for Steven Stucky: Theme and Variations are “Please, sir, may I have a little more?” Or a lot more. The two‑dozen odd variations were quirky, difficult, canonic, rollicking, playfully executed on the lowest or highest notes. Perhaps, like the Goldberg Variations, each minuscule variation was meant to teach a particular musical notion–but if so, those lessons were lost on this listener. Instead, each segment had a jollity and expressiveness which could have pleased Mr. Stucky.

Nobody questions Donald Berman’s unerring keyboard skill, and this was shown in those fiercely difficult Liszt transcriptions of Schubert songs.

The one encore gave a–perhaps covert–balance to Mr. Levering’s work. Mr. Berman played a transcription of Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow. The former was a Garland for Steven Stucky. This was another Garland. Judy to be exact. And a dreamy farewell to an intriguing evening.

Harry Rolnick



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