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You don’t have to be Latin to play Latin

New York
06/02/2018 -  
Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Souvenir de Porto Rico, opus 31 – Manchega, étude de concert, opus 38
Ernesto Nazareth: Odeon
Octávio Pinto: Cenas Infantis: 1. “Corre corre”
Heitor Villa-Lobos: A lenda do Caboclo, W 166
Ernesto Lecuona: Danzas Afro-Cubanas: “La Conga de media noche”
George Gershwin: Three Preludes
Alberto Ginastera: Piano Sonata No. 1, opus 22 – Danzas Argentinas, opus 2: “Danza de la moza donosa”
Jesús González Rubio: Jarabe Tapatio (tr. Earl Wild)
Osvaldo Golijov: Levante

Michael Lewin (Piano)

M. Lewin (© Liz Linder)

There are some very strange stereotypes rampant in the music world: only Poles can play Chopin, for example. Another one is that you have to be Spanish/Latin in order to properly “understand” Spanish/Latin music. By that paradigm, one would have to inquire from what country our present pianist hails; there is nothing in his playing that suggests anything other than a profound understanding of the present idiom. (BTW, he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y.).

This concert was the second of two concerts that Mr. Lewin played that day at Bargemusic (the first one was at 6 PM); the two concerts were entitled “Piano Music of the Americas.” While there was some repertoire overlap, the 6 PM contained exclusively American (U.S. born) composers, while the 8 PM was a wider survey incorporating both North and South America.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) was almost a rock star in his day (as mentioned in Mr. Lewin’s amusing and informative comments before each composer) as a touring pianist; as a composer, he concentrated on piano works exploring themes related to his travels. There is a wide range of quality to his piano music; the two presented here are among the best. Souvenir de Porto Rico is essentially a set of variations on a theme of the eponymous country. It occurred to the writer that this piece may have been a subtle nod to the Beethoven “Eroica” Variations; Gottschalk lays out the harmonic background of the piece before introducing the theme, identical to the Beethoven (the fact that both use the pitch class E flat also hints to said homage). Lewin, with his shading of colors and wide range of touch, made a better case for this piece, as well as Manchega that followed than I have heard from most pianists; the rhythmic infection he brought to the works never allowed them to become staid or formulaic.

Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934) was the first and earliest of the three Brazilian composers presented. A highly prolific composer, he wrote (in addition to over a hundred other works) 88 tangos brasileiros, of which Odeon is undoubtedly the best known. Lewin’s idiomatic approach gave the piece a life that I have found mostly lacking in the many other performances I have heard of this little gem.

Octávio Pinto (1890-1950) was perhaps best known as the husband of the world-class Brazilian pianist Guiomar Novaes. He was an avocational composer, best known for his suite Childhood Scenes. Lewin lovingly presented “Run run” from this suite: a charming little evocation of a child running around, getting tired and napping and then running again (I couldn’t avoid noticing the similarity of the opening to “O Polichinelo” from the Villa-Lobos suite The Baby’s Family.) Speaking of Villa Lobos (1887-1959), his Legend of the Native is a Chopinesque tango and a well known work of this incredibly prolific composer. As Lewin is an estimable Chopin player, his synthesis of the lyric and tango elements of this piece were sublime and clarified the influence that the Polish master had on some many later composers.

The Cuban Ernesto Lecuona (1895-1963) is known primarily for one piece, Malaguena. This is unfortunate, as he wrote over 600 works, and his body of piano music contains some of the finest works in that genre written in the 20th Century (look at Ante El Escorial or San Francisco El Grande as examples). “La Conga de media noche” is the opening work of the six Danzas Afro-Cubanas, in this writers estimation his finest suite of works, and is the only one that does not have the word danza in the title. But worry not – after the almost impressionistic opening, it rollicks along as a full-fledged danza. The startling way that Lewin highlighted the dichotomy between the opening and the work was an interpretive highlight of the recital for me.

Lewin, in his remarks, mentioned that Lecuona was known as the “Cuban Gershwin” (I wonder if Gershwin was known as the “American Lecuona” in Cuba). Presenting the Three Preludes of the American, Lewin, displayed, particularly in the Second Prelude, the qualities that time and time again make him a superlative pianist; the lyricism and intense tonal beauty that elevated that sometimes cloying work.

We now moved to the “meat and potatoes” work on the program: the brilliant Sonata No. 1 of the great Argentinian Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983). This 4 movement work is a study in moods and the synthesis of Argentinian music with a rigorous 20th Century harmonic framework. I shan’t get into the details of the composition here; suffice it to say that Mr. Lewin captured both the 20th century and Argentinian characteristics of the work most effectively. As a Ginasterian coda, he beautifully presented the second of the three Argentinian Dances.

The American pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010) was one of the great virtuosos of the 20th century, and a musician of wit and style, as well as a prolific composer and transcriber. Humor was endemic to every aspect of his musical life, and his hilarious transcription of the Mexican Hat Dance (written by one Jesús González Rubio) elevates that silly and campy tune to a true virtuoso transcription. Having heard Earl play it himself (as well as his recording), I can say that Lewin’s traversal was the equal of the transcriber; high praise indeed.

Lewin closed the program with a magnificent work by the Argentinian/American Oswaldo Golijov (born 1960). If you only know Levante, that work alone would certify the composer as a major force in contemporary composition. Happily, that is not the case, and there are numerous examples of his abilities extant. Levante is his only piano piece so far; let’s hope there are others to follow. Lewin’s performance was consummate.

Closing with a beautifully rendered encore of Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), “The Lake at Evening” (from the Op. 5 Tone Pictures). Though Michael Lewin has a busy performing and teaching career, it is a bit inexplicable why his performances in New York are so rare. On basis of this recital alone, he deserves in our city a far better recognition.

Roman Markowicz



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