Thursday, September 28, 2017

Juilliard: Bachauer Award Recital

On Tuesday evening I went to Juilliard's Paul Hall to hear the Gina Bachauer Award Recital.  Featured were the two Juilliard pianists who had won this year's annual competition - Chaeyoung Park, a BM candidate, and Yun-chin Zhou, an MM candidate.  Both are students of Robert McDonald.  Together they gave a one-hour performance of works by Bach/Siloti, Bartók, Liszt and William Bolcom, none of which had previously been familiar to me.

The program, hosted by WQXR's Bob Sherman, began with Chaeyoung Park performing J.S. Bach's Prelude in B Minor as arranged by Alexander Siloti.  The source for this brief work was actually the composer's Prelude in E Minor, BWV 855a, an early version of that found in The Well Tempered Clavier, Book I (1722).  Siloti, a student of Liszt and a cousin of Rachmaninoff, was himself a major musician and conductor in pre-Revolutionary Russia to whom Arensky, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky all dedicated works.  In 1918, no doubt seeing the writing on the wall, Siloti fled his homeland, even after having been named Intendant of the Mariinsky Theater, and ended up as a teacher at Juilliard.  He was known for the excellence of his transcriptions, and the present piece is generally considered to be the finest of these.  In it, he lowered the key by an ocatve, reversed the roles of each hand, and included a repeat of the entire work that contained within it a "hidden" melody for the left hand.  These changes completely altered the character of Bach's prelude to bring it within the tradition of Russian Romanticism.  It was an splendid choice with which to begin the recital.

The next piece was Bartók's Out of Doors, Sz. 81 (1926), for me the highlight of the entire recital.  Unusually for the composer, each of the piece's five movements was assigned a title.  Of these, the first, "With Drums and Pipes," was based on a traditional Hungarian folk song.  Bartók, in the company of Kodály, had spent years at the turn of the twentieth century recording Hungarian and Romanian folk music and in so doing had become one of the world's first ethnomusicologists. Bartók's researches formed the basis of his own modernist music, and this passage was an excellent example of his process of assimiliation.  The work's most interesting movement, though, was unquestionably the fourth, "The Night's Music."  Bartók often played this separately from the other movements and at one time had intended to record it.  The composer's night music was one of the most distinctive of his musical innovations.  He used the term to describe slow passages in which he sought to portray the sounds of nature at night, albeit in an unconventional manner that could sometimes be unnerving, as in The Miraculous Mandarin completed only a few years before Out of Doors.  In this piece it had indeed an unsettling effect, and yet at the same time it possessed a mesmerizing quality that held the audience transfixed.

Yun-chin Zhou then took the stage to perform Liszt's Réminiscences de Norma, S.394 (1841).  The composer was famous for his transcriptions of operatic masterpieces, particularly those of Wagner, and here he chose one of Bellini's most successful works.  This was not  a transcription in the technical sense, however, as much as it was a reimagining of the entire opera achieved by recasting seven of its themes for piano in a thoroughly Romantic manner, a technique Liszt also employed in his Réminiscences de Don Juan completed the same year.  As with most of Liszt's works for piano, the Réminiscences de Norma was intended to challenge the virtuosity of even the most experienced pianists.  To my mind, though, it did not have the depth of Liszt's transcriptions of Wagner no matter how brilliant its sound.

The progam concluded with both musicians returning to the stage to play together the first and last movements of Bolcom's Recuerdos for Two Pianos (1991), a work originally commissioned for a 1991 two-piano competition.  Bolcom is an extremely eclectic composer, forever reinterpreting his sources in his own idiom much the same as Bartók did when absorbing his homeland's folk music.  Recuerdos consisted of three movements, each of them inspired by a different composer - Ernesto Nazareth, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Ramón Delgado Palacios - whose singular styles provided stepping off points for Bolcom's invention.  Chôro was a dance piece deeply influenced by Nazareth's Brazilian tangos but at the same time interwoven with American ragtime.  It provided a marked contrast to Palacios's eighteenth century Valse Venezolano.  With its strong Latin flavoring, the piece bore little resemblance to the Viennese waltzes of Johann Strauss.  The music of both these South American composers provided a solid base for Bolcom to build upon.  His music has invariably been highly accessible and enjoyable and here overflowed with rhythm and energy.

The Bachauer Award Recital has always been the occasion I mark as the beginning of the classical music season.  Hearing the performances of two such fine pianists as Chaeyoung Park and Yun-chin Zhou helped me once again realize the importance classical music holds in my life.

Tuesday's recital will be broadcast on WQXR's Young Artists Showcase on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, at 9:00 p.m. and should be archived on the station's website for some time thereafter.

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