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From the Ecstatic to the Ekphrastic

New York
Zankel Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/18/2015 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Opus 31, No. 3
Robert Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Opus 13
Felix Mendelssohn: Rondo capriccioso in E Major, Opus 14
David Hertzberg: alba (World Premiere)
Maurice Ravel: La Valse

Steven Lin (Pianist)

S. Lin (© Shao Ting Kuei

Steven Lin belongs to that glorious halcyon of pianists which includes Daniil Trifonov, Jeffrey Kahane, Emanuel Ax and Kirill Gerstein. All are Laureates of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, a contest founded by Rubinstein himself in 1976. And indeed, Mr. Lin chose a program for this recital which would have taxed that pianist himself. It needed the greatest stamina, control, ardor and vision, all of which Mr. Lin possessed with seeming ease.

Yet this program also demanded something which the young artist lacks now, though is bound to achieve in the future: that sense of organic wholeness, of sacrificing digital fireworks for artistic communication.

One felt that in the first work, Beethoven's 18th Piano Sonata, a work which totally belies the portrait of the composer as a dour misanthrope. From the start, this is a work of grace, of vigor—and frequently with that uproarious laughter with which the composer was known to end his recitals.

Mr. Lin played the first movement with all the joy it demanded. The first notes questioned (like a comic asking “Have you heard this one?”), and the rest burst forth with elation, unending joviality.

One inevitably must compare those brilliant legato runs in this movement with the same exercises by Mr. Trifonov this month. Both are masters (as befitting Rubinstein), but Trifonof's aural illusion transforms his fingers turn into hummingbird wings which brush the keys without any human interference. Steven Lin works at these runs. One can hear the endless exercising, one knows that he has gone through endless agonies to get them exactly right.

Neither of them is deficient. But only one lets the notes fly into the concert hall instead of keeping them on the piano.

Mr. Lin is obviously proud of his prowess. But when he took Beethoven's Allegretto vivace at a Presto vivace pace, then the Master's humor turned into a slapstick turn. His hands, not his head, did the thinking, though he finished with a gracious minuet and that suitably rapid-fire finale.

After this, the Taiwan-born artist tackled a work which the composer himself thought was too arduous for any human pianist. The Symphonic Etudes takes so much endurance that Robert Schumann deleted six of the twelve variations. As I discovered last night, nothing can really be deleted. Johannes Brahms “discovered” these missing pieces, rewrote five of them. Since Schumann had died, we now have the “posthumous” variations, rarely played by any pianist.

Steven Lin, though, is not “any” pianist. He inserted four of the variations inside the ordinary work, certainly worthwhile additions. With his usual tensile strength, Mr. Lin tackled the complete work, and played with his typical romantic style Great pauses when necessary, thunderous runs on the piano when called for. Three of the “posthumous” etudes were pleasant enough, simple songs which added little to the original. But “Posthumous Variation 7: Moderato” was a lovely extended work, almost a complete piece by itself. Where Brahms had apparently left the others simplified, Mr. Lin played this with the grandeur of Brahms himself. And while I've heard the Etudes played well by others, Mr. Lin's additions gave a unique flavor to the work.

The Mendelssohn Andante and Rondo Capriccioso had the meaty technical challenges which Mr. Lin enjoyed. The andante was played with suitable solemnity, and he lunged into the Presto without any hesitation.

David Hertzberg, who had written a piece for Mr. Lin previously, here was represented with another world premiere, alba (commissioned by Concert Artists Guild). It was the only modern work I've heard where the explanatory program notes were far far more incomprehensible than the music.

I'm unsure what the title, alba, means, though Mr. Hertzberg explains it as an ekphrastic response to images which had created his first work, notturno incantato. Other than that, he submitted two verses of a poem, both of which were only blurrily comprehensible: I.e Luna: Behind beginning in the swath of selves, I reap the slum of swollen motion.... And the second verse: Horus: I linger for the mawnng fissures, ever/In the ripe of ending...”

Prayed I, as the pages of music were placed on the piano, may the sounds be neither “mawning” nor a “glauous shadow” (also from his poem). Prayers answered, this Philistine was delighted that the first note was a simple major third!! And yes, that major third was thickened with more notes, and more notes. The chords were played minus any melody (it resembled the opening of Rachmaninoff's Second Concerto), and while these chords progressed from tonal to polytonal to virtual chord clusters, their persistence was a familiar base for the hints of melodies above.

True enough, the piece graduated itself into a whirligig of notes, played seemingly faultlessly by Mr. Lin, and those chordal phrases became landmarks, steadying anchors for the music to come. Toward the end, this could have been a late Scriabin sonata, the harmonies and fragments of tunes turning into a fairly mysterious fleeting scherzo. Whether it reached the Mr. Hertzberg's ekphrastic goal was questionable, but it certainly showed off Mr. Lin's splendid technique.

(For my fellow plebs, “ekphrastic” means one art commenting on another art. Here, I suppose the poetry and music commented on each other. I haven't looked up “mawning fissure”, though it sounds like a Deep South salmon-trapper at sunrise. Or a farmer's salutation to Eddie, Edwin or Bobby.)

While dutifully impressed by Mr. Lin, I had expected that the final work, Ravels's transcription of La Valse (which the composer himself was unable to play) would be a festival of frenetic fireworks. Yet this was one occasion when Mr. Lin played with transparency, clarity, each note ringing out. Even those final phrases, usually blurry, were clear.

While performed with forceful brilliance, Steven Lin had to have been exhausted. That was shown with the single encore. Schumann's ultra-popular “Träumerei”. The simplest of all music, it was actually fumbled by the pianist, who lost his way twice. Only a cad would blame him. Even a virtuoso runner can be allowed to stumble after running such a fierce and ambitious marathon.

Harry Rolnick



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