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Lost in the Labyrinth of Notes

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
01/27/2011 -  
The Art of Transcription
César Franck: Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Opus 18
Johann Sebastian Bach/Ferruccio Busoni: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Richard Wagner/Franz Liszt: Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Vincenzo Bellini/Franz Liszt: Réminiscences de Norma, S. 394 (Coda by W.A. Soerjadi)
Wibi Soerjadi: Apuleius’ “Amor & Psyche” (U.S. Premiere)
Hans Zimmer/Wibi Soerjadi: Gladiator (Transcription for piano solo)

Wibi Soerjadi (Pianist)

W. Soerjadi (© Patrick van Katwijk)

After a long absence, the Dutch pianist-composer Wibi Soerjadi gave a “recital” last night, though that word is a misnomer. More accurately, Mr. Soerjadi presented two hours of fervor and digital frenzy, dazzling and confounding, where his ten fingers multiplied like dragon’s teeth, where his piano spat out thousands of notes per second.

Another sometimes out-of-control technician, Vladimir Horowitz was famed for playing an encore of The Star Spangled Banner with inhuman velocity. Mr. Soerjadi played the same work as an encore, but with three times as many notes per measure, along with a quodlibet of Yankee Doodle, My Country, Tis of Thee and probably a square dance as well.

This wasn’t a Charles Ives salmagundi, though. It was more like the music of Gottschalk in the 19th Century, which went faster and faster, with a gyroscope of melodies melding into one, until dozens of swoonin’ Southern belles and damsels would fall into his arms.

Was Mr. Soerjadi’s concert fun? Absolutely! Fun like Ringling Brothers or a New York Marathon where each runner was a 32nd note. Was it great music? Well……let’s start from the beginning.

First, Mr. Soerjadi has much in common with master magicians. He started with misdirection. A beautiful, sensitively played César Frank Prélude, Fugue and Variation. This was Franck’s paean to Bach, but the pianist created a late Romantic, almost dreamy work. Lovely balances, perhaps too much pedaling (as in all the works he played), a ravishing start.

Nor was the massive Busoni arrangement of the D minor Toccata of Bach a trick. Mr. Soerjadi made the organ tones resonate on the piano, and his incredible technique, while a bit thick in the great runs, gave a big orchestral feel to the music.

The first Liszt transcription, Wagner’s Liebestod, breathed perfume and dark bedrooms. Wagner was the utter sensualist, but Mr. Soerjadi turned the bedroom into a massive candle-lit brothel. One began now to see where he was going. Mr. Soerjadi was less ready to play music than to play his piano, which he did with strength so enormous that it never had room for breadth.

And now, like any great magician, he supposedly–supposedly!–gave away his trick. Before the Norma transcription, he announced that the work should be played with three hands, not two. And then he showed how this was done. When the left hand had nothing to do for a few seconds, it went to the top of the piano and a third hand.

Aha! So that’s how he does it. Not quite. Even reading the score, one has headaches seeing the hands moving from register to register, and yes, it is written on three staffs But the magician had a surprise. While Liszt finished with eight measures of chords, Mr. Soerjadi added his own notes, outdoing Liszt, playing seemingly four staffs at one time with his own coda.

It was an incredible performance, but it wasn’t Bellini, it was show business. Nothing wrong with that.

The second half was devoted to his own nine-movement orchestral score taken from the same story which Franck had composed 150 years ago, the myth of Psyche and Amor. Shamelessly, he plagiarized some music, (the opening was from Carmen, the second movement started with quotes from Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze”). The rest was detailed in his notes, where apparently every note had a reflection in the story. But the music itself, while sounding all too much like Lisztian outtakes, was technically so complex that perhaps only Mr. Soerjadi could handle it.

It could easily serve as background to a ballet. As music itself, one could again revel at the digital magic without wondering too much about the substance.

His final work was his piano transcription from Hans Zimmer, perhaps Hollywood’s most creative mainstream film composer. Music from The Gladiator fit Mr. Soerjadi ideally for he approaches the piano like a gladiator more than a musician.

Before the two encores, including that medley of American music, he revealed what we all should have known, confessing that he was always trying “to reach the limits of the piano.” Not the limits of music or interpretation, but his piano itself.

I think it was non-pianist Hector Berlioz, who said that fortune allowed him to compose in silence, “away from the tyranny of the fingers.” Mr. Soerjadi is not tyrannized by his fingers, he relishes the sound, speed and virtuosity which puts every internal or introspective thought out of his mind.

It was fun to hear him, it was the most dazzling entertainment imaginable. But after it was over, rather than thinking about music, my mind conceived the most beautiful sight, walking my dog through an East Village park, the moon radiating on the spiritually silent snows.

Harry Rolnick



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