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Dispatches From The Ivory Tower

New York
Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls; 92nd Street Y
10/16/2003 -  10/13/03;10/14/03
Johann Sebastian Bach: French Suite # 4, Partita # 2, English Suite # 6
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonatas Nos. 27 & 31, Concerto # 1
Bela Bartok: Out of Doors
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, Symphony # 41
Franz Schubert: Sonatas D566 & D960
Franz Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody # 5, from Annees de pelerinage, Csardas macabre

Andras Schiff and Zoltan Kocsis (pianos)
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields
Murray Perahia (piano and conductor)

For this critic, there are five extraordinary pianists on the planet at the present time and this week in New York, I was able to hear three of them. Oddly perhaps, two are Hungarian. Is there any significance to this? The great tradition of the Liszt Academy must come into play. In any case, what a week it was!

I. Monday: The Three B’s

Although not yet fifty, András Schiff seems to have been around forever. About twenty years ago, I heard him and another electric Hungarian, Sir Georg Solti, perform one of the two wilder concertos of Bartók in Chicago. The audience reaction being so enthusiastic, the pianist was persuaded to perform an encore in the midst of this purely orchestral concert. Significantly, he chose the first of the Two Part Inventions of Bach. This simple and pure music was especially eloquent in its atavistic frame: timeless and decidedly internal. These few minutes remain after all this time a profound revelation.

All business, Mr. Schiff strides to the piano and begins almost instantaneously, acknowledging applause only perfunctorily. I should state at the outset that I am squarely on the piano side of the argument where Bach is concerned, having some trouble with the waywardness of harpsichord intonation and preferring the grandeur of this music to its courtliness. This reading of the French Suite was loose and relaxed in a personal, unbuttoned style, “one hand waving free” as Bob Dylan would say, and yet was dynamically and overtonally uniform. Schiff’s feet remained in place under the bench: no pedal was ever even approached for this balanced rendition. The combination of strict meter and form with somewhat idiosyncratic phrasing was a new twist on Bach interpretation, a fresh look at scripture.

Between the hallowed pages, this accomplished storyteller chose a mysterious approach to one of the last metaphysical works of Beethoven. I was especially struck with the sense that this interpreter understands the import of what he presents, a quality sorely lacking in many of the best technical exponents of our undereducated contemporary instrumental world. After this ruminative traversal, the alacrity of the individual sections of the 2nd Partita was heady and exciting, a rollercoaster ride of flashing fingers and imagined ecstatics, transformed to spirituality by the sheer propulsion of the dance.

But the crowning glory of this recital was the first moment after the interval, when the primitive chords of the Bartók exploded in the center of Carnegie Hall. What strange music this is cannot be explained on a printed page; one must be startled by its emergence from the slime of the preternatural, a beast out of time suddenly appearing at our doorstep. It was then that I thought of that old concert; Schiff was still thinking hard before programming his pieces. The preparation for this Out of Doors suite was a warm bath in the ablutions of old J.S. (Bruckner started every one of his composing days in a similar manner, playing Bach chorales at the piano to cleanse his auditory palette). This was an athletic performance, made Technicolor by its musical environment; from the off-kilter barcarolla to the demonic chase, here was Schiff reminding us of his sheer muscularity and commanding presence.

Almost as an expiation, the final English Suite was notable for its controlled rhythmic precision, less thoughtful perhaps than, say, Glenn Gould, but infinitely more dancelike. Here the damper pedal was applied judiciously and the exiting feel was one of supreme calm. Even the solid encore program followed a similar pattern. A truly magnificent Nocturne in F Sharp of Chopin, poised always at the very edge of the table, threatening to topple, was followed by another rock-solid Bach excursion. A journey into the treacherous that ends in comfort and security: isn’t that what Western music is all about?

II. Tuesday: Grace Without Pressure

All classical music performance is a compromise, a Euclidian version of a Lobachevskiian world with much lost in the simplified translation. Unlike other forms of art, music is created to be experienced through the hands of facilitators and the resultant product can be far from the intentions of the auteur. In Beethoven’s day, this was much less of a problem: the composer himself would be the featured interpreter, not to mention that many intelligent people could read scores at the time. Today, however, often what one gets is a muddle, as differing conceptions of players, maestros and soloists congeal into an unctuous clot. It was therefore especially pleasant last evening at Lincoln Center to experience a rendering of the Piano Concerto # 1 wherein the rhythms, dynamics and, especially, accents were in total agreement between pianist and leader. The infectious liveliness of the third movement main theme, for example, was delivered with positively raucous glee (the essence of this raw master composer) as a homogenous and completely in sync collaboration. The key to this meshing of kindred spirits was that the splendid soloist and the scholarly conductor were both Murray Perahia.

Known since his teen years as a composer’s pianist, Perahia often exhibits insight into the works he performs. I remember Boris Kroyt, violist of the Budapest Quartet, working with the sixteen-year-old at Marlboro and marveling at his awareness of Schumann’s method of composing, justifying individual notes which had previously made little formal sense. Kroyt chose the unknown lad to be his accompanist for his marvelous recording of the Brahms Sonata # 1, still one of the most revelatory in the discography. Over the years, I have enjoyed Perahia’s measured playing immensely: he always seems to bring out better than any of his contemporaries the most beautiful qualities in the music he chooses, no small task considering that his repertoire is of the more standard variety and competition is therefore fierce. As a conductor, he has matured before our very ears, growing from the lovely and lyrical series of complete Mozart concerti in the later years of the LP to the present era of solid confidence.

Perahia played, he conducted, he chose the much more elaborate and interesting long cadenza, he did everything last night but sell tickets (and perhaps he should have been given that task as well, as there were an embarrassing number of empty seats plainly visible). Working with the gorgeously blended sound of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Orchestra, he put the lie to the myth that the acoustics are unacceptable at Avery Fisher Hall (they are simply unforgiving, so one had best have their auditory ducks in a proper row). The collaborative Beethoven performance was thrilling and delicate by turns and, perhaps most importantly, had just the right improvisatory feel.

As “just a conductor”, Perahia is also quite impressive. His Adagio and Fugue was simply ravishing, a bit less bottom than I would have wanted in an ideal, intense performance, but probably more purely Mozartian that the overly romanticized legacy of the 1940’s and ‘50’s has left as residue in our ears. In fact, this type of small orchestra, full bodied, modern instrument approach is just the compromise for our time, and who’s to say, Sir Roger Norrington notwithstanding, what is right or wrong, or desirable, or “authentic”?

The crowning glory of this opening night (yes, we know that the Philharmonic has been tooting for a month already, but, as recent events have brought into sharp focus, they are but a tenant) was a spectacular performance of the ”Jupiter”. Here was as close to an ideal Mozart performance as one is likely to get since the death of Josef Krips. Balance, grace, charm, import, this version had it all and in just the right restrained proportions. No hitting over the head, just honest and technically flawless music making. The little touches, the entrances of the timpani, the nobility of the horns, made this a standout effort of understated eloquence.

III. Thursday: Insistent Yet Intimate Communication

I don’t often spend time discussing piano technique in these articles because it is tacitly understood that, at this highest level, recitalists have bags full of it. Rarely is the mechanical preparation so faulty as to deserve mention, but, perhaps even more unusual is a pianist so overwhelmingly the master of his game that it cannot go unnoticed. Zoltán Kocsis is such a performer. On this same stage of the 92nd Street Y many years ago, Lazar Berman, with Gilels and, later, Richter, the most glorious exponent of the Russian muscular school, came literally crashing down on a chord which shattered the frame of his Steinway. Maestro Kocsis has similar strength, but uses less of the upper body and coaxes more from the digits themselves. Most amazing is his accuracy, especially at higher volume levels: no hitting in the cracks, no incorrect intonation, no, as they say in Brooklyn, “fat fingering”. Coupled with a magical touch of delicacy and an unwavering faith in the solid percussionist’s concept that upstrokes are much more important than down, Kocsis has as varied a palette as any artist active today. To see his right hand rotate until only the pinky finger remains on the keys is to experience visual poetry.

This is all very nice, of course, but what makes this man a consummate artist is his interpretive power, fueled by a positively religious pursuit of a cache of scholarly knowledge. There were really only two pieces on this amazing program, one in each half, as the affable Mr. Kocsis explained why he does not play the third movement of the Schubert D566 (only the first two sections appear in the original manuscript) and substitutes instead the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #5 as an interesting finale (in the same E Minor). In so doing, he pointed out how the allegretto of the Schubert was almost exactly the same music as the second (and last) movement of the Beethoven Op. 90, the idiot bastard child of the Bonn master’s 32, a piece that Artur Rubinstein never played until well into his fifties, claiming in his wonderful “My Young Years” that it made absolutely no sense to him until he matured. The Beethoven followed by the Schubert with its new Lisztian “ending” put me in mind of those famous transcriptions that the 19th century Hungarian virtuoso seems to have written specifically for his 21st century heir; how glorious for us all that the current scion of the dynasty is willing to share!

From the nobility and power of the opening of this new method of synthesis, almost a new work by Kocsis the composer, he led us to the much more diaphanous world of the Villa d’Este, producing some of the most impressive pianism that I have ever witnessed. Not in, say, the Gieseking style where it doesn’t seem that the piano has any hammers, but rather in a proudly stentorian voice, this necromancer created the illusion of water flow at a much higher decibel level, not reminding of Niagara Falls, but rather a private coy pond. Synaesthetic in nature, it bedevils the descriptive powers of this writer to convey this intensely felt juxtaposition of physical size and delicacy of statement. Mighty like a rose? Perhaps. Haiku in all capital letters might be a bit closer.

In one of those extremely rare moments when one is actually amazed, the opening of the D960 after the interval was one that will remain in the memory for years. Taking the main theme slowly, Kocsis then paused before its repetition. Not a little caesura, mind you, but a full blown, seemingly one minute in length, grand pause. The effect of the reprise was sobering and when the second subject began, with its poignancy unique to the dying poet, this critic was already moved to astonishment. Such an intense level of insight only three minutes into a fifty minute essay established perfectly the annihilation of linear time so vital to an understanding of late Schubert. If there truly is a music of the spheres, this is it. There are so many moments that I could ecstatically describe, but I will limit myself to one more. The opening of the scherzo was taken at such a confident and jaunty pace and provided such a counterpoint to the measured ceremony of what came before, that one felt positively dizzy. There are certainly other pianists in the world who could have played this short movement as dexterously (although but a precious few), but no other could have framed it more intelligently. This wasn’t just a recital; it was an event in contemporary music history.

Last season, Maestro Kocsis won my Lully award for best orchestral concert when he led his Hungarian Orchestra in a most exciting afternoon at Lincoln Center. Although this season is only in its infancy, it is hard to imagine a solo recital that would keep another of these coveted prizes off of his mantle back home in Budapest.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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