Faculty Pianists Make the Grade

United StatesUnited States Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Bartók, Ravel: Faculty Gala, PianoSummer, State University of New York at New Paltz, Julien J. Studley Theater, New Paltz, 2015.11.7 (SSM)

Vladimir Feltsman:
Bach: Partita No. 1 in B-flat major, BWV 825

Paul Ostrovsky:
Beethoven: Andante Favori in F major, WoO 57
Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio, Op. 129

Susan Starr:
Chopin: Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1
From Études, Op. 25 No. 1 in A-flat major, Sostenuto
No.2 in F minor, Presto

Robert Roux:
Brahms: From Klavierstücke, Op. 118:
No. 1. Intermezzo in A minor, Allegro non assai, ma molto appassionato
No. 2. Intermezzo in A major, Andante teneramente
No. 6. Intermezzo in E-flat minor, Andante, largo e mesto

Robert Hamilton:
Bartók: Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs, Op. 20

Alexander Korsantia
Ravel: La Valse, arranged by Alexander Korsantia

It has been 6 years since I last attended a recital at the annual “PianoSummer” Festival held on the campus of SUNY New Paltz. Created by Vladimir Feltsman, this is a forum for skilled young pianists to immerse themselves in practice under the tutelage of renowned teachers. It has quietly continued as a yearly event, and although not as well-known as the nearby festivals at Caramoor, Bard College and Glimmerglass, it has thrived and is now in its 20th year. The Festival includes master classes by visiting artists, student recitals, weekly artist recitals and a piano competition, the winner of which performs in a final gala as soloist in a to-be-determined concerto.

This opening public concert of the Festival was a recital by the faculty members. Not that anyone would question the authority of the staff, but it certainly set an example for the students of what their mentors have accomplished. The entire faculty (except for Phillip Kawin, who was ill) played their own idiosyncratic samples with both élan and panache. Their chosen repertoire was in nearly chronological order from Bach to Bartók; only in the penultimate and final works were the 2 composers’ birth dates out of order.

The concert opened with Feltsman’s performance of Bach’s first Partita for keyboard. Tastes in music seem to change so rapidly that at times they go right past one. Even the most hardened purist (read defender) of historically informed performance would have a hard time finding a pianist taking an urtext score at face value. Keyboardists on piano or harpsichord have come around to the realization that the old contest between the two Bach specialists of the middle years of the past century, Roslyn Tureck and Glenn Gould, clearly has been won by the latter. Listening to Tureck’s readings of the great keyboard works of Bach, I find her playing almost comically rigid, stiff and inflexible. Repeats were always taken, and never varied by even the most basic ornamentation; tempos were conservative and rhythms hardly dance-like. Glenn Gould saw Bach as a constantly evolving composer who undoubtedly never performed the same piece twice. To say that Gould’s journey to Russia in 1957 (documented in Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey) made a strong impression on the pianists and their students in the great Russian conservatories would be an understatement. It took a longer time for Western countries to follow suit, weighed down as they were by the conservative pianists of the day.

Feltsman’s performance of the first Partita was no mirror image of Gould: never quite as détaché as Gould, freer than Gould about ornamentation and the taking or skipping of repeats. His tempi, though, were very close to Gould’s, as was his use of arpeggiated chords and ritardandos at the close of each movement. In the context of the other works on the program that take advantage of the modern piano’s extra octaves, one sees how much of Bach’s keyboard music was constrained by the limited range of the harpsichord and early pianofortes. Feltsman’s playing, particularly in those passages requiring hand over hand execution or those where the intervals are tighter, created a kind of kinetic energy that is inherent in Bach’s circumscribed keyboard compositions.

Next, Paul Ostrovsky played two short pieces by Beethoven. Many of Beethoven’s minor pieces have gained in popularity through their titles: somehow, sticking a name on a composer’s otherwise nameless piece immediately raises the perceived worth of that composition. This is also true of works which are untitled but carry with them a story, whether apocryphal or true. It doesn’t make a difference if the title came from the composer or from someone else. In the pieces played here,  Andante Favori purportedly was named by Beethoven; the “Rage over a Lost Penny” was titled by Diabelli who published it after Beethoven’s death and likely sold more copies by giving the piece a human face. Ostrovsky was a bit choppy in the Adagio, but improved enough to bring sprightliness to the otherwise bombastic “capriccio.”

Susan Starr gave a heartfelt performance of Chopin’s B-flat minor Nocturne. Published in 1833, it was the first of Chopin’s 21 pieces in this form to be printed.  It’s not often played, and there are surprisingly few recordings. Perhaps it suffered from comparison to the really first nocturnes: those of the Irish composer John Field. As late as the beginning of the 20th century, its lack of popularity was noted with surprise by one critic who called it “one of the most elegiac of Nocturnes…for some reason neglected.” Ms. Starr succeeded in capturing the work’s melancholy.  Her control of the keyboard was also apparent in the first two of the Op. 25 Etudes.

There is a long hiatus between Chopin’s early Nocturnes of 1833 and Brahms’ piano pieces of 1893, and we see in the later works the beginning of the end of the Romantic era. These short pieces are complex, and it can be difficult for an audience to see through the density of even their most lyrical moments. The entire keyboard is played, down to its lowest notes. The very Brahmsian stylistic marks abound here: hemiolas, diminished seventh chords, vague or abrupt modulations often to far away keys. Robert Roux had control of these disparate elements at all times and, admirably, his playing never sounded studied.

We are fully in the 20th century with Bartók’s Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs. Bartók wrote volumes of piano music based on his collections of his country’s indigenous folk music; the set that Robert Hamilton chose to play falls into the third part of Bartók’s own classification of how he incorporated the songs into his scores. This music is more Bartók the modernist than Bartók the musical archaeologist. He himself stated that whatever use he made of folk tunes was to be  “only regarded as a kind of motto.” In fact, much of the enjoyment of these dense, convoluted works comes from trying to catch the “hidden tunes”  ̶  only clear to me in the last 2 pieces.

Alexander Korsantia’s arrangement of Ravel’s orchestral “La Valse” had to be the final work even if Ravel was born 6 years after Bartók. This arrangement, Lisztian in its demonic power, required tremendous technical skills and, surely, un-tuned a piano already in need of adjustment in its upper octave. If Ravel were still alive, his immodesty and vanity would surely have suffered a blow. Korsantia has written a reversed  transcription of Ravel’s orchestral powerhouse, La Valse, and done it on a level that equals, if not surpasses, Ravel’s transcription for orchestra of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, originally written for piano.

All in all, this was an auspicious opening concert that more than bodes well for the rest of the series.

Stan Metzger

The Festival continues through July 31st. See www.newpaltz.edu/piano

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