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From the Playground to the Mountaintop

New York
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
11/13/2023 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 15 in D Major “Pastoral”, Opus 28
Joseph Haydn: Fantasy in C Major, Hob. XVII:4
Charles-Valentin Alkan: Symphony for Solo Piano, Opus 39

Schaghajegh Nosrati (Pianist)

S. Nosrati (© Irčne Zandel)

Alkan possessed the finest technique I had ever known, but preferred the life of a recluse.
Franz Liszt

I’m becoming daily more and more misanthropic and misogynous...nothing worthwhile, good or useful to do...no one to devote myself to. My situation makes me horridly sad and wretched. Even musical production has lost its attraction for me for I can’t see the point or goal.
Charles-Valentin Alkan

The first three works played by the great German-Iranian pianist Schaghajegh Nosrati last night were a playful prelude to a monumental finale. For Ms. Nosrati has more than lucidity, clarity and faultless technique. By giving us the rarely-played Symphony for Solo Piano by Charles‑Valentin Alkan, she showed a singular bravery.

Writing that Bach, Beethoven and Haydn were “playful” was not an error. The oft‑played Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue was obviously a personal exercise by J.S. Bach. Not humorous, like some of his cantatas, but a work that would give a workout to any harpsichord player, and a fugue far more accessible than those in The Art of the Fugue.

Bach never had a Steinway, with its pedal for a near glissando. This was Ms. Nosrati’s keyboard which she zipped up and down with a tornado of notes. But wonder of wonders, she never took the easy way out. She rarely stepped on the pedal, didn’t rely on resonance. Instead, each of the 16th notes were crystal clear, staccato (like a harpsichord), but with the great color of the Steinway. It was an opening tour de force that seemed effortless or perhaps child’s play, if the child had fingers dancing on the keys.

The following Beethoven “Pastoral” Sonata (predating by a decade the Symphony) was the second work which seemed to be written just for fun. Actually, not a morbid note in the whole thing. The melodies are childlike, the jolting surprises come straight out of Haydn, the whole thing seems to have been written without the Beethoven scowl, possibly even a laugh or two. For with the simplest most naive tunes, he added ornaments, surprises and that joy of writing.

Perhaps, knowing that the monumental Alkan was coming up, Ms. Nosrati played it with a delicious simplicity. One didn’t need birdcalls or storms or country dances. This was a mild walk in the Vienna woods.

Which is why the opening was taken rather slowly, getting ready for the adventure. The Allegro direction was barely adhered to. But so clear was her playing that one didn’t worry about that. The following Andante was varied little in pace–in fact it sounded rather mechanical. Yes, she is so technically adept the left and right hands each had their own orchestral feeling. Those jolting sforzando jumps gave it oomph. Which Ms. Nosrati did with percussive force.

The scherzo was light, naive, and the pianist offered those filigrees as the tempo went forward. As for the Allegro finale, Ms. Nosrati paid little attention to the ma non troppo. Then again, with the same gorgeous runs that she gave the Bach, this Sonata was an al fresco interlude. One imagines that Beethoven probably told the players, “This is only an attenuated bagatelle. Do what you want!”

The following Haydn Fantasia in C was a shorter–and electrifying bagatelle. No need for the name “Pastorale”. Haydn based the five‑minute work on the folk‑tune The farmer has lost her cat. (Not exactly Schiller’s Ode to Joy, but Papa Haydn confessed he wrote it “in a moment of great good humor.”)

My score says it should be played Presto. Ms Nosrati played it not more than Allegro vivace, adding a pair of l‑o‑n‑g pauses. But it was terrific fun. Sarcastic, filled with those long runs, and played with a delicate touch.

C.‑V. Alkan

The monumental work, comparable to Liszt’s B Minor Sonata, an Everest of solo piano‑play. Of course Charles‑Valentin Alkan. Alkan was to Liszt like Medtner was to Rachmaninoff: brilliant, inordinately difficult. But not quite up to the more famed composer.

(Liszt’s wild life is well documented. Alkan’s hermetic life was noted for its supposed death when a Talmud fell on his head. Nice, but a fabrication.)

The Symphony for Solo Piano was actually four études from his massive 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys. And here there were no questions about Ms. Nosrati’s breathless expertise. One could spot within its torrential playing hints of Schumann, Liszt and almost a parody of Chopin. But Alkan has his own inner personality, and Ms. Nosrati attacked the music like a Roman gladiator.

The rip‑roaring opening measures led to a massive development, and Ms. Nosrati gave it a coherence. Like the opening Bach, this was enthusiastic playing. Not “performing” but taking the first two études in their gigantic stride. Partly romantic, partly thunderous.

The third movement was supposedly a minuet. But one knows that Liszt would have called it a “witch’s minuet.” Ms. Nosrati emphasized those distorted passages in order to give a Chopin‑style waltz. A tempestuous waltz.

Somebody once called the finale “a ride through hell.” Ms. Nosrati tackled the Presto insanity with ease. In fact, if Schaghajegh Nosrati has one personal trait is that she doesn’t need Trifonov’s bravura or Hamelin’s easy‑going expertise. She steers a middle path, allowing the music itself to rumble and roll, while she became merely (sic) the exultant executant.

Harry Rolnick



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