Weill Recital Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 8
Franz Liszt: Apres une lecture de Dante
Robert Russell Bennett: Hexapoda
Maurice Ravel: Sonata
Shunsuke Sato (violin)
Vassilis Varvaresos (piano)
When Emanuel Ax was a teenager, he discovered an unlocked door that led into Carnegie Hall and was thus able to attend all of the great piano recitals of those days for free. This type of illicit pleasure is a staple of lads growing up in New York (they used to be able to sneak into the old Polo Grounds to watch the Giants play when the only policeman turned his back to the crowd while saluting the flag during The Star-Spangled Banner) and marks a right of passage for every urban warrior. Now Mr. Ax is on the board of the Young Concert Artists and can come and go in all of the major concert venues as he pleases (actually, there is still a way of gaining access to the historic auditorium sans ticket, but my gracious hosts at Carnegie would shoot me on sight if I ever revealed the secret). Leaving aside the obvious jokes about how one gets to Carnegie, one of the best stepping stones is a recital at the immediately adjacent Weill Recital Hall.
Last evening’s duple debut was a mixture of the familiar and the unknown for me. I have followed the career of Shunsuke Sato since he was fourteen and have found him to be an artist mature far beyond his years. However, I had never heard the pianism of Vassilis Varvaresos before. Together they formed a virtually unbeatable team, establishing from the first confident runs in the Beethoven that this would be a recital of substance. Mr. Sato is extremely self-assured and had no apparent difficulties with the complex fingering or grandiose style of the piece (this is one of the first wherein the passionate genius emerges wholeheartedly) and Mr. Varvaresos dazzled with his refinements and varieties of touch, powerful and delicate by turns.
There being no intermission in this highly charged program, the pianist offered a solo so that his partner (and there was a palpable sense that they were equals this night, no caste system of soloist and accompanist in evidence) could rest a bit. This young Greek proceeded to recreate a performance of the Apres une lecture de Dante in the manner of its original composer/interpreter, right down to the romantic Lisztian gestures, which seemed not an affectation but rather a transportation to a time when a piano recital was an erotically charged event complete with swooning female devotees. Pouring his young heart and soul into the work, this dervish convincingly stated his case for playing with abandon, the emotion of the author being swept away by the sheer beauty of the trecento poet coming through loud and clear, even stronger in its reprise after an interval of calm reflection. To be sure, there were several errors of enthusiasm in this rendition, but they only served to reinforce the impression that we were all actually present at the creation of a performance by the leonine Liszt, whose reckless bravura style must have led to a few wrong notes in actual performance. This was a terrific effort, a poetic display that a pianist of any age would envy, but that most mature (read uptight) practitioners would probably not feel comfortable in emulating (more’s the pity).
An odd bit of Americana followed. Robert Russell Bennett’s jitterbugging suite seemed out of place in these hallowed surroundings, fit more for a radio performance by Jose Iturbi and Jack Benny, but it represented that period of chest-beating insecurity on this side of the pond fostered by such “America first” proponents as Virgil Thomson (actually, my own father never really considered Carnegie a legitimate musical venue until Benny Goodman played there). The two principles gave this forgettable piece a performance far beyond its intrinsic musical merits but stumbled as programmers by following it with the Ravel, which features its own blues movement. Hearing the idiom (ironically borrowed from America) explored by a master truly relegated the Bennett to the scrapheap, but all was forgiven in the glow of such a rich reading of the modern French classic, punctuated by aggressive syncopation at the keyboard and masterfully insouciant portamento on the fiddle (the final slide was wickedly gorgeous). This program impressed also by its stylistic intelligence: each piece was given a suitably idiomatic reading, including a snappy De Falla encore. It is always a special pleasure to witness such superb playing from rising stars and I make a strong effort to attend these debuts when possible. Although there is often a lot of chaff to wade through, truth be told, it is no more of a problem than with constant attention to more established performers. The Young Concert Artists have a splendid track record, so good in fact that I would suggest changing their name to something like “Concert Artists Who Happen To Be Young”. I guess that’s why I’m not in publicity.
Frederick L. Kirshnit