Thursday, April 20, 2017

Juilliard Piano Recital: Beethoven, Carter, Dorman and Mussorgsky

On Wednesday afternoon, I went to a recital at Paul Hall sponsored by Juilliard's Piano Performance Forum.  There were only three pianists on hand and the performance of works by Beethoven, Elliott Carter, Avner Dorman, and Mussorgsky lasted little more than an hour.

The first musician to take the stage was Qi Kong who proceeded to play Beethoven's next to last piano sonata, the A-flat major, Op. 110 (1821-1822).  This piece is not played nearly so often as the final sonata, the Op. 111, but it is nevertheless one of the composer's greatest masterpieces and one of the finest compositions ever written for solo piano.  At the heart of it is the third movement, marked adagio, ma non troppo, in which Beethoven, seriously ill at the time, confronts his own mortality in a gloomy meditative passage filled with despair; its dark character hovers over the final movement that follows without pause.  The ending builds slowly to an affirmative climax in which the composer strives to overcome the insurmountable difficulties facing him and resolves to move forward whatever the cost.  Though filled with hope, this resolution is, however, not quite convincing.  The knowledge of death, no matter how bravely faced, lingers on.

The next musician was Qi Xu who performed works by two twenty-first century composers, Elliot Carter and Avner Dorman.  First was Carter's Caténaires (2006).  It's hard to believe that Carter was already 98 years old when he wrote this piece.  It's certainly not the work of an old man.  Carter himself wrote of it:
"When Pierre – Laurent Aimard, who performs so eloquently, asked me to write a piece for him, I became obsessed with the idea of a fast one line piece with no chords. It became a continuous chain of notes using different spacings, accents, and colorings, to produce a wide variety of expression."
The second piece was Dorman's Sonata No. 5.  I had not previously been familiar with any of Dorman's oeuvre though the composer, who holds a doctorate from Juilliard, is obviously quite highly regarded both here and in his native Israel.  His works have been performed by any number of major orchestras.  The present sonata must be a fairly recent piece as the Wikipedia listing of Dorman's works goes only so far as the Sonata No. 4 to which it assigns a composition date of 2011.  As it is, it proves a powerful modernist composition that bears little resemblance to the (somewhat) traditional Beethoven sonata performed earlier but that works very well when paired with the Carter piece.  These two works were for me the most interesting of the recital and I thought Qi Xu gave an excellent performance of both.

The final, and longest, performance was given by Hechengzi Li who played Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874).  Most listeners are familiar with this work through Ravel's superb orchestration, but Mussorgsky originally composed it as the virtuoso piano piece performed here.  It was intended as a tribute to the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann who died of an aneurysm at only age 39,  Like Mussorgsky and other members of "the Five," Hartmann had been an strong advocate of promoting nationalist themes in Russian art. and this had formed the basis of the pair's close friendship.  Upon Hartmann's death, an exhibit of his artwork was staged in Saint Petersburg as a memorial to him.  It was while viewing the exhibit that Mussorgsky hit upon the concept of the work as a musical representation of a viewer passing through the show and pausing to look at one Hartmann picture after another.  Ironically, most of the original artwork has since been lost and it is only through Mussorgsky's music that these paintings now exist.  The music itself is much more powerful in the original piano version; it has a rawness and a hard edge that has been subsumed in Ravel's elegant transcription.

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