Arnaldo Cohen Evokes Piano Virtuosos of the Past

CanadaCanada Bach-Busoni, Brahms and Chopin: Arnaldo Cohen (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, BC, 30.11.2014. (GN)

Bach-Busoni: Chaconne in D minor
Brahms: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
Chopin: The Four Scherzi


Many young pianists dazzle with their supreme technique and control these days—and often leave audiences unmoved. Their display seems merely learned and perfected, and only tangentially related to what they really think or feel. Hearing the great piano virtuosos of the past, it doesn’t seem like this; they may be extreme, inexact or even willful but the white heat they generate comes from the inner reaches of their soul. That is why experiencing these artists is so compelling and memorable. This concert by Brazilian-born Arnaldo Cohen brought back some of these feelings. Winner of the 1972 Busoni International Piano Competition, and currently full professor in the music school at Indiana University, Cohen is a mature artist with enviable keyboard control and weight, and his intense sense of musical purpose and colour simply forces listeners to jump on for a compelling ride whether they want to or not. In his hands, there is no seemingly no break in concentration; he suspends audiences in the passion and emotional variety of his pianism with almost cinematic force.

 The opening Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D minor can be a real blockbuster—and it definitely was here. Don’t look for any semblance of metrical presentation. A consuming fantasia of rhythmic progression mixed with colorful rubato—musing and searching at one moment, purposive and fiery at the next—then at points finding an almost Debussy-like sensuality, before the hammering chords eventually arrived. It was not the counterpoint of Bach that one noticed; it was the expressive imagination of Busoni. The reading may have been individual but it flinched from absolutely nothing, so certain was its purpose.

In many ways, the Brahms Handel Variations is a more classical work but one which has long held favour for artists from the southern Americas. Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet and Jorge Federico Osorio have already made the most distinguished recordings. In Cohen’s hands, inflection and rubato were present right from the beginning, and he progressed through the variations with natural passion and flexibility. Rhapsodic flow and energy were seemingly everywhere, when the pianist occasionally hinted at a grand manner and fully delighting in tossing off some of the virtuoso passages. Much of the keyboard work was luminous and created an interesting sense of organic unity. The execution of the final variations was particularly fine and, except for one slight hesitation, the closing fugue built inexorably, weaving powerful articulation with soft, liquid phrasing.

 It is not that often that all four Chopin Scherzi are played in a row and, while this was a galvanizing experience, it was probably difficult to appreciate the individual joys of each of them in this context, especially given Cohen’s degree of projection and intensity. This was ‘big’ Chopin, sometimes on a Lisztian scale: robust, weighty, often operating at extremes, and certainly pushing forward much of the time. There were some moments of repose in the second Scherzo and elsewhere, but this was playing of great contrast. It was only a moment or two before virtuoso flourish would spring up seemingly out of nowhere again. Towards the end of the second Scherzo, Cohen made a strong accelerando, coupled with a sense of grandeur. Demonic energy in turn was memorably etched at the beginning of the Third, with rich characterization throughout, and the fourth Scherzo was vivid and colourful. Evidently, this was not Chopin playing of particular intimacy, sometimes a little headlong and impetuous, and not for the faint of heart—but certainly an overwhelming adventure in its own way. The Scherzos can take this sort of treatment better than other Chopin.

 It is of course possible to illuminate both the Brahms and Chopin pieces in ways that are quite unlike this, and I do like a number of these alternatives. But this was a real experience. Few piano recitals have carried this degree of concentration and conviction through from beginning to end—and with such commanding clarity and tonal richness. Was any of this overloaded or self-conscious? Certainly, there was a strong virtuoso projection in much of the playing—but the answer is “no.” The playing was in no sense showy. It was as if the pianist were so sure about what he wanted to say—and how he felt about it inside— that he gave everything he had. And that is exactly what reminds me of the distinguished piano virtuosos of the past. The encore was the fetching Brazilian traditional piece, “Odeon,” by Ernesto Nazareth.

 Geoffrey Newman


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