A Poet Returns: Juho Pohjonen’s Recital at Zankel Hall

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Debussy, Chopin: Juho Pohjonen(piano), Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York City. 3.11.2011 (SSM)

Beethoven: Sonata No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28, “Pastoral”
Debussy: Estampes
Chopin: Twenty-Four Preludes, Op. 28

In a review of Juho Pohjonen’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, I referred to him as a poet whose playing is “delicate, graceful and effortless.” I can add more adjectives for his recital here: “intense, committed and thoughtful” would be a start. If his choice of works was meant to show all sides of his talent, he made wise decisions, and opened his recital with a limpid and affable performance of Beethoven’s Sonata No.15. The gentle first movement with its softly played staccato bass line leads into a poignant theme that sets the pattern for the rest of the sonata. Even the Scherzo, usually in Beethoven’s hands the most frenetic form, is tempered here. This sonata is one of Beethoven’s least showy works, and it confirmed that Pohjonen is one of the least showy pianists around. One need only compare his style to that of a contemporary, Lang Lang, to make the point clear.

One of the most impressive of Pohjonen’s skills is his ability to create subtle gradations of color through a masterly control of the keyboard. With his demand for complete dynamic control of the piano, Debussy would seem to be an ideal composer for this young man, and he is. Pohjonen’s fingers seemed to barely touch the keyboard, yet he was able to draw out sounds awash with shadings. The concluding measures of the first movement of Debussy’s Estampes entitled Pagodes, with its cascading thirty-second notes, were played with ethereal lightness. He forcefully carried forward the strong Spanish dance pulse of the second movement, Soirée dans Grenade, and was adept at imitating the sound of rain in the concluding Jardin sous la Pluie.

The concert concluded with the demanding Twenty-Four Preludes of Chopin. Not since Pollini’s classic recording of this work in 1990, have I heard such a strong and convincing performance. From the fleet Agitato opening to the concluding “Storm Prelude, nothing seemed difficult or demanding. Some might question the tempi of many of the these miniatures: the entire twenty-four pieces clocked in at around twenty-five minutes, an exceptionally fast pace compared to Pollini’s thirty-six and Ashkenazy’s thirty-nine. But I never sensed any Prelude was rushed, and if anything he may have lingered on some of the slower pieces. The warhorses like numbers four and seven never sounded clichéd, an accomplishment in itself.

Much has been made of Pohjonen’s cool manner. But why should he or any artist betray his nature just to please the audience? One could instead be thankful that a musician is willing to share his or her amazing abilities in a concert hall and leave the smiling to chorus lines.

Stan Metzger