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Resplendences and Rarities

New York
Kaufman Center, Merkin Concert Hall
09/04/2012 -  
Michael Hersch: Selections from The Vanishing Pavilions
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata Nr. 28 in A Major, Opus 101 – 11 New Bagatelles, Opus 119 – Polonaise, Opus 89
Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Handel, Opus 24

Soheil Nasseri (Pianist)

S. Nasseri (© Wolfgang Kleber)

As one would expect from the adventurous, ebullient Soheil Nasseri, the program at Merkin Concert Hall last night possessed imagination in choices and a delightful calculus in the structure of the program. Yet at the end, the most beguiling absolutely joyous choice belonged to that stolid old Johannes Brahms.

Nothing was either stolid or old in the Handel Variations. The work itself is as all-encompassing as the “Diabelli” Variations, embracing an anthology of emotions. Mr. Nasseri was confident and almost brazen in his performance. But most important, his playing possessed a delight in the music itself.

As well it should have. Even more than the “Paganini” Variations, these, coming from a Handel harpsichord suite, are sharp, harmonically plain, and–best of all from Mr. Nasseri’s adoration of the dance–rhythmically sharp. Mr. Nasseri made it highly personal, but never idiosyncratic. The “legato” sixth variations had a sharp feel to the canon. The tenth variation was given the right “energico” feeling, but Mr. Nasseri made it almost a literal scherzo, the jokey contrasts all too blatant.

The best was the last. Mr. Nasseri played last fugue not only with a transparency, an homage to that ancient form, but with an exultation, a laudation. It was, in fact, a proclamation of the young Nasseri and the young Brahms revealing their particular masteries.

Like a perfect arch, Ms. Nasseri’s two halves reflected upon themselves. Each ended with a major schematic work (the Brahms and the Beethoven Opus 101). Each half started with a series of shorter works from a single composer, each short piece with a unity of its own.

Nothing prepared one, though, for the audacious opening, eight selections from Michael Hersch’s Vanishing Pavilions, that 150-minute piano work based on the poetry of Christopher Middleton. Mr. Hersch was in the audience (for the first half), perhaps because Mr. Nasseri is one of the only pianists (the only one?) who has dared essay the work outside of the composer himself. In this case, he chose eight sections. One, Number 12, was supposedly repeated, but perhaps this came from the second book of the series, since it certainly didn’t sound the same.

I had never heard the piece in its entirely, and only a few sections on YouTube. Hearing it in person is an astonishing experience. Mr. Hersch has studied with a particular pantheon of great composers–Henze, Berio, Rochberg, Corigliano, Harbison, Rouse–but the music is entirely individual. The sudden sounds, the sforzandi, with interpolations like chorales or 18th Century hymns, is clever enough. But the effect of even these eight pieces was astonishing if only for the power, the energy, the dynamics (in both senses of the word) which the pianist must use.

Mr. Nasseri, without a score but obviously with a great grasp of the work, played with all the energy needed. Energy, plus nuance and that specific power to make the contrasting moods adhere to one another.

The music was new, but the effect grabbed me (and apparently others who filled up the Merkin Hall Auditorium) by the cajones and never let go.

The following Beethoven I found brittle, more German than Viennese, with more strength than poetry. But his second Beethoven, the Bagatelles, was given a unity. They vary in quality, of course, but by playing them with hardly a pause, Nasseri presented a mosaic of Beethoven, or even a Picasso-like distending of the composer.

The rarest work was a Beethoven Polonaise. No misprint here, During the Congress of Vienna, which literally shaped the world for the next 150 years, entertainment was needed for the easily distracted Heads of State. Beethoven was never averse in making money, and he wrote this rather difficult work for some Russians who offered many a kopek. The piece was wide in range, challenging for the pianist. But Mr. Nasseri, who has performed in ballets himself, has an unerring way making any dance movement come brilliantly alive.

Harry Rolnick



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