September 2, 2014
A plethora of pianists sweeps BA audiences
For the Herald
Goerner, Haydée and Sohn render impeccable versions of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, BerioLast weeks have been particularly rich in great piano concerts. Nelson Goerner for the Mozarteum, Minsoo Sohn for two Festivales (both at the Colón) and Haydée Schvartz at the CETC provided the music lover with memorable evenings.
I have written before that Goerner is the best Argentine pianist of his generation (he’s in his early forties) and his Brahms/Beethoven programme provided incontrovertible truth to that exalted rank. The means are purely musical, for he has little charisma: a transcendental technique always used in terms of its application to the musical materials’ deep sense; programming that makes no concessions but always presents important scores; complete command of the stylish characteristics of the composers he plays.
The Brahms section unveiled a rarely played work that proved quite valuable: the Variations on an original theme, Op. 21 Nº1. In fact, the eleven variations on a simple theme go through fascinating transformations, completely typical of this composer’s language. The Fantasías Op. 116 are a 7-part late masterpiece, alternating enormous strength with virile dreaminess; the pianist caught each mood unerringly.
But the greatest challenge was that beautiful monster: Beethoven’s huge Sonata No. 29, Hammerklavier, by far the most difficult and longest of the 32. It always surprises me that Goerner’s slender body is able to produce such perfectly controlled masses of sound. His acute intelligence was more to the fore than ever, untangling the knots of devilish counterpoint with complete clarity, but also the concentrated sublime expression of the Adagio (comparable to that of the Ninth Symphony) was offered with extreme sensibility. I would argue that the final Fugue was too fast, but he never lost his way while he executed almost incredible sleights-of-hand.
The encores were splendid: Chopin’s slow Prelude No. 4, the extremely virtuosic Rachmaninov Prelude Op. 23 No. 5 and an almost unknown Nocturne by Paderewski (probably Op. 16 No. 4).
Any experienced pianist will tell you that the four greatest sets of variations are Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg; Beethoven’s on a waltz by Diabelli and Brahms’ on Händel and Paganini. I don’t know about the latter, but — on his debut in Argentina —Korean pianist Minsoo Sohn played the first three. His very long programme started with the Brahms Variations on Händel and after the interval the Goldberg with all the repeats (80 minutes!). Plus two — in my opinion — unnecessary encores after such a tour de force; he played for about 112 minutes.
Sohn has recorded both the Goldberg and the Diabelli, which shows that challenges don’t faze him. Of course whenever Bach is played on a piano there’s the controversy about whether it’s right, for obviously the intended instrument was the harpsichord. And I personally prefer it to the piano in this repertoire: the Goldberg are often written for two claviers and the superposition of two hands in one clavier (the piano) makes it much more arduous to play.
The work is a marvel: a gentle aria is followed by 30 variations of extraordinary variety and the score culminates with the repetition of the aria; after the colossal impact of the last variations, it comes as a return to serenity and supreme poise. Make no mistake, Sohn is a true virtuoso, which doesn’t mean that he’s absolutely infallible (he says it himself in an interview, “perfection is unattainable”) but he comes mightily close to it. Maybe it was the piano he used, but his sound is rather percussive in the strong, mechanically demanding pieces both in Brahms and Bach; the soft pieces were too ritenuto in Brahms, but ideal in Bach. Purists may find that Sohn pedals a lot, but he does it with great refinement.
You can only do such a programme if you have high powers of concentration and a true devotion to music: Sohn provides both. His Goldberg will join reference names such as Rosalyn Tureck. Now I would like to enjoy these variations in the same highest platform but from a harpsichordist; only it can’t be at the Colón: it would be wonderful at the Museo de Arte Decorativo.
The best thing in the CETC season is the season of integrals, both instructive and valuable. The CETC is the Colón’s Centre for Experimentation, an uncomfortable cellar with reasonable acoustics. Due to collisions with other events I had to cover, I was sorry to miss the complete Boulez piano music played by Taka Kigawa, and Kagel’s five quartets by the UNTREF Quartet. But at least I could hear the integral Luciano Berio piano music in marvellously illuminating and accurate versions by Haydée Schvartz, an authentic specialist in the Twentieth Century.
I prefer his short pieces such as Feuerklavier or Leaf to the ultra-complex Sonata, and the Five Variations to Sequenza IV, mainly because I find them fresher and more inventive, but all are the work of a major composer and well worth their acquaintance.
To finish, I would like to put in a good word on behalf of a pianist I admire, Claudio Evelson. He has had a discontinuous career since his child prodigy times and is now in his middle sixties. In recent years he has been working hard to reinsert himself into our musical life. Hear him, for he has a talent of a type that is uncommon nowadays: he plays in the style of the old masters of my youth, with a solid, well-based technique applied with much sensitivity to a mainly Romantic repertoire. He is giving concerts on Wednesdays at 1pm at the big synagogue on Libertad street, close to the Colón.