Friday, November 2, 2018

Juilliard Piano Recital: Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff

Earlier this week I went to Alice Tully Hall to hear the first installment of this season's Wednesdays at One, Juilliard's midday series of concerts and recitals at which promising musicians have an opportunity to display their talents.  On this occasion it was the solo piano music of Bach, Chopin, Haydn and Rachmaninoff that that was featured during the hour-long recital.

The program opened with a performance by Sylvia Jiang of Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 (1722-1723).  The French Suites (a name never given the work by Bach himself) are a set of six keyboard suites, each of which contains several Baroque dance movements, written for instructional purposes during the composer's sojourn in Köthen. a period during which he wrote some of his most important works, including the cello suites, the orchestral suites, and the Brandenburg Concertos.  The Suite No. 5 contains seven movements, the most famous of which is the gavotte.

There were several works by Chopin on the program.  The first was the lovely Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60 (1845-1846) as performed by Alexander Yau.  The barcarolle form itself is derived from Venetian gondoliers's traditional folk music and is charactierized by a rhythm reminiscent of the sweep of oars through still waters.  Probably the most famous example of this genre is the hauntingly beautiful Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour that opens the third act of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman.

The next pianist to take the stage was Jun Hwi Cho who performed Haydn's two-movement Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:48 (1789).  Although short in length, the sonata contains some of Haydn's most original music as the composer here took advantage of recent improvements in fortepiano design.  The opening movement is a free form fantasia that employs Haydn's signature alternating, or double, variations while the second movement rondo is filled with the wit that would characterize his later works.  It's apparent from this sonata that Haydn was finding new confidence as a composer even before achieving the fame that accompanied his first visit to London two years later in 1791.

Rachmaninoff, one of the twentieth century's greatest composers for solo piano, was represented at this recital by four of his Op. 23 Preludes (1901-1903) - No. 1 in F-sharp minor, No. 2 in B-flat major, No. 3 in D minor, and No. 5 in G minor - as performed by Aleksandra Kausman.  Though for obvious reasons Rachmaninoff's Preludes are often compared to those by Chopin, the two actually have little in common.  To me, Rachmaninoff's have always seemed to display deeper feeling; they are truly suffused with the spirit of Russian Romanticism.  I once heard Vladimir Horowitz play two of the Op. 32 Preludes (the G major and G-sharp minor) and thought them the high point of that long ago recital.  The Op. 23 G minor, composed two years before the others, is deservedly the best known of the earlier set.  The pervasive sense of melancholy in the central section never fails to move the audience. 

The program concluded with a performance by Biguo Xing of Chopin's Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842, revised 1843).  The ballade genre itself was Chopin's own invention and was reputed, at least by Robert Schumann, to have been inspired by the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz.  All four are extremely complex works but the fourth most especially so in its extensive use of counterpoint and its simultaneous development of both the first and second themes.  It's a truly amazing work and arguably Chopin's greatest achievement as a composer.

This was an excellent recital with an eclectic program in which the Romanticism of Chopin and Rachmaninoff was nicely balanced by the Bach and Haydn selections. The Juilliard pianists were all extremely skilled and each drew a large round of applause from the audience.

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