Amid the Mumbai Monsoon a Spaniard Would Reign

IndiaIndia Brahms, Schumann, Albéniz, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky: Eduardo Fernandez (piano), National Centre for Performing Arts’ Experimental Theatre, Mumbai, 6.7.2012 (RoW)

Brahms: Klavierstücke, op.119
Schumann: Symphonic Études, op.13
Albéniz: Iberia (excerpts)
Rachmaninoff: Études-Tableaux, op.39 (excerpts)
Stravinsky: Petrouchka Suite (1921 version)

It took up until the halfway point of Eduardo Fernandez’ recital for some musical magic to steal onto the stage of the National Centre for Performing Arts’ Experimental Theatre in Mumbai. The Spaniard’s well-designed website includes blurbs extolling him as his country’s pianistic “king-in-waiting”, after the recent demise of its keyboard queen, the legendary Alicia de Larrocha. It doesn’t hurt that Fernandez (not to be confused with the famous Uruguayan guitarist of the same name) is highly photogenic, bearing more than a passing resemblance (when clean-shaven) to the dashing Juan Diego de Florez. In person, the 31-year-old pianist (currently donning a trim mustache) reveals a lithe, compact figure, tucked into an all-black, tight-fitting, discreetly festooned outfit.

I guess it’s necessary to do all one can to stand out in a crowded music market, but ultimately the proof of the pudding is in the playing. Beginning his well-crafted program with Brahms’ op.119 Klavierstücke, Fernandez revealed a beautiful, but unidiomatic touch in the opening B minor Intermezzo. This magnificent set of pieces—Brahms’ last composition for solo piano—was undermined, to put it mildly, by Fernandez’ determination to downplay the passion and drive that are precisely what propels this complex work convincingly. The concluding Rhapsodie never soared. Brahms’ beloved mentor and friend Schumann followed, represented by his Symphonic Études (op.13), and fared better. But yet again the gorgeous music, including the final triumphant pages, never took flight. Fernandez sounded mannered and self-conscious, holding back needlessly and robbing the score of its effectiveness.

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I.Albéniz, Iberia, Eduardo Fernandez

Maybe it was jet lag, or the humid Mumbai monsoon weather, or both… or perhaps Fernandez simply needed time to warm up, but for the second half he came alive and took his music-making to a different level. Albéniz’ mighty Iberia, this formidably difficult and exquisitely beautiful impressionistic Spanish masterpiece, is apparently Fernandez’ calling card—his recording on the Warner label certainly has gotten him much critical and popular acclaim. Fernandez undoubtedly did justice to the excerpt he chose: the almost 11-minute long Almeria, which depicts the Andalusian coastal town where Albéniz’ father briefly lived in the 1860s. In lesser hands, this music sounds fragmented and episodic, but Fernandez wove each part into a satisfying whole, his dynamics beautifully judged, the various sections expertly paced. You could tell the pianist was—in every way—at home here. After that performance, I, too, want to seek out his recording.

Playing Albéniz appeared to have freed Fernandez from any inhibitions, because the Rachmaninoff op.39 Études-Tableaux that followed (Nos. 1, 5, and 9) were thoroughly impassioned and nicely differentiated despite their turbulent tempi. The pianist is represented in Russia by a prominent talent agency which has arranged a number of concerts for him across the former Soviet Union… which makes perfect sense for someone so comfortable with the Russian romantic idiom.

The closing work was the evening’s highlight: Stravinsky’s Petrouchka Suite, specifically the 1921 three-movement version created for Arthur Rubinstein, which the composer apparently couldn’t play himself for lack of an adequate left hand technique. Not only was Fernandez’ technique more than up to the task, but he managed to take this highly percussive work and transform what most other pianists render as clangy, repetitive chords into the most gorgeous sounds. The hapless puppet and the ballet’s other characters were vividly depicted; Fernandez caressed the notes and judged to perfection the critical pauses that are a key part of the score. I’ve never heard this work played so musically in concert; Michel Beroff’s performance in Mumbai some 30 years ago was pedestrian in a comparison across decades.

The encore was a virtuosic arrangement of Spanish songs and dances by the pianist himself, not particularly memorable but nicely done, with a fine sense of fun. With another Iberia excerpt—or some of Granados’ Goyescas perhaps—this self-proclaimed prince of the keyboard could have done a little more to corroborate whatever his future aristocratic aspirations may be.

Roy Wadia