The Long Road to Carnegie Hall: Pianist Christian Zacharias’ Debut Recital

United StatesUnited States Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert: Christian Zacharias, (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York,13.12.2011 (SSM)

C. P. E. Bach: Sonata in A Minor, Wq. 57, No. 2
Rondo in C Minor, Wq. 59, No. 4
Johannes Brahms: Klavierstücke, Op. 119
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
Franz Schubert: Sonata in D Major, D. 850

What piqued my interest most about this program was Christian Zacharias’ decision to include C.P.E. Bach in his debut recital at Carnegie Hall. His four recordings of Scarlatti speak for his talent and passion for Baroque keyboard music. Would his sensitivity carry over to a composer who in many ways is the opposite of Scarlatti? Where Scarlatti’s music is truly “baroque” in its boldness, wild virtuosity and theatrical flair, C.P.E. Bach, the second eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, was looking for a way to be emotionally expressive in a controlled way. The pianoforte and clavichord were his instruments of choice. Most of Scarlatti’s music was for the harpsichord (or very early pianoforte) where, unless he was playing a double manual instrument, the music could be fast and slow but not loud and soft (piano and forte). For the most part, C.P.E. Bach avoided writing contrapuntally, often replacing the bass with a simple harmonic line: a few of the same notes played repeatedly. Even if he had wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps he knew that to survive as a musician he had to be shrewd. He would have to adhere to the style of the day (or create the style of the day) or suffer the fate of his older brother, Wilhelm Friedemann, stigmatized for life as old-fashioned.

How does one successfully perform on a piano works that were written for an instrument which produces sounds on the level of a lute or non-amplified guitar? This goes way beyond the debate as to whether music written for harpsichord should be played on a piano: Glenn Gould put this question to bed 50 years ago. Very few pianists have succeeded on the piano with C.P.E. Bach. Mikail Pletnev’s show-off style and overemphasis of the composer’s manic moments is not very appealing. Danny Driver’s CD is warmer than Pletnev’s but lacks the C.P.E. Bach spark. Glenn Gould has it right in one of his two recordings of C.P.E. Bach sonatas.

Zacharias was as close to being on the mark as anyone I’ve heard playing C.P.E. Bach on piano. Applying a light and subtle touch to the keyboard and a limited but effective use of the foot pedals, he made the concert hall feel as if it had shrunk to the right size. In a style both dispassionate yet committed, he escaped the temptation to exaggerate C.P.E. Bach ‘s sudden changes in dynamics and bizarre key modulations. What often seems crazy in C.P.E. Bach’s scores sounded perfectly reasonable here. The Rondo’s surprise ending with that “missing” note had a stronger effect than in performances where the entire work is played wildly.

Zacharias succeeded with C.P.E. Bach where others have failed due to his good sense of the balance between being playing to be heard and playing too loud; somehow this pianist knew how to work with the magical acoustics of Carnegie Hall. That is quite an accomplishment for someone performing here in his first recital.

Zacharias’ performance of works by Brahms seemed too controlled and not passionate enough. An intermezzo is one of those musical appellations like “prelude,” “impromptu” or “interlude” that could mean pretty much anything, from slow to fast, loud to soft, tender to dramatic. These three intermezzi and one rhapsody (another generic musical phrase) did not come to life in this performance, never quite reaching Brahms’ complex and idiosyncratic music world.

Zacharias’ Beethoven fared somewhat better. He played in a cooler style than one is used to hearing these days and his sensible phrasing and tempered use of rubato clearly delineated the complex lines of this penultimate sonata. He was at the top of his form in the final movement’s ending fugue, reveling in the counterpoint.

Of all the major composers in the classical period, I’ve always found Schubert to be the one least capable of writing a decent development section in sonata form. Sometimes, when the music is catchy, as it is in the Symphony No. 9 or the C Major Quintet, it doesn’t really matter: one is so enthralled with the music that one can suspend critical acumen. The D major sonata is not one of them. In the first movement of the sonata, the development section simply repeats the same theme with minimal variations; I counted nearly sixty iterations of the opening six chords. If one listens to the openings of the first three movements, they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. As for the rondo, the main theme is cute in the way Carl Czerny’s superficial exercises or Clementi’s piano music can be. This sonata, written while Schubert enjoyed a rare happy vacation outside Vienna, makes us appreciate that he didn’t vacation more often: he was most profound when he was the least content.

Note: The two encores, the rarely heard Scarlatti K.55 and the delightful Mozart Rondo K. 485, were exceptionally well-played.

Stan Metzger