The piano recital gets revolutionized at Rockport
Gilles Vonsattel, a lean, intense young Swiss-born American pianist, offered a recital program Thursday night at Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport that was both refreshingly diverse and cleverly interrelated.
Afrique, a Lisztian farrago by Saint-Saëns, shared the first half with vivid character pieces by the Hungarian firebrand himself. Between these transcendental items, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata offered a glimpse of where their Romantic impulse came from.
The second half featured Partita, a lengthy and ambitious 1999 work by the oboist and composer Heinz Holliger, and Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, Frederic Rzewski’s 1979 minimalist take on the soulless machines of the cotton mill and the irrepressible human souls who run them.
If Vonsattel’s edgy approach suited some of these pieces better than others, at its best his playing left an indelible impression of imagination, vitality, and sheer unignorability.
The program bore the overall title “REVOLUTION!”—and indeed, themes of iconoclasm and protest were explicit (or at least inferrable) in most of the music on the bill.
An exception was Afrique, a showy piece of musical tourism composed in an era when revolution was the smallest of clouds on the horizon of a colonized continent. On the whole, the piece sounded more Spanish than African, at least until an Arabic scale or two showed up.
The piece kicked off fast and gnarly, and Vonsattel immediately showed he was a technical master who could achieve nuance of phrasing and well-voiced chords amid the most extravagant difficulties. His tone didn’t warm up much in the cantabile passages, however, and eventually Saint-Saëns’s keyboard gymnastics wearied the ear, so that the piece’s eight minutes began to feel more like eighteen.
The moonlight in Beethoven’s sonata sounded foggy indeed, as Vonsattel kept the una corda pedal on throughout the first movement, per the composer’s instructions, but allowed the music to sound not just veiled in tone but emotionally remote as well. So the naïvete of the ensuing Allegretto, though nicely rendered, didn’t provide as marked a contrast as it might have.
In the finale, Vonsattel joined the swelling ranks of pianists who think it doesn’t matter if you can hear the sixteenth notes, and play the theme as a series of blurry arpeggios. The movement’s essential paradox—a convention-shredding outburst in textbook sonata form—devolved into noisy exertions.
Just when one was thinking Vonsattel was not much of a “touch” pianist, he magically evoked the play of water—burbling, spraying, splashing—in the opening bars of Liszt’s Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa dEste. It was as if the piano were made not of hammers and strings, but of some kind of musical fluid. Unfortunately, the pianist’s pallid left-hand cantabile brought the rest of the piece back down to earth.
Throughout the evening, Versattel called on ringing, percussive octaves and chords to dramatic effect, nowhere more so than in the fearsome crescendo of the funeral march that opens Liszt’s Funérailles. There was contrast in the nostalgic theme, painted in golden hues, but not much emotional pull. Similarly, the episode of galloping left-hand octaves and bugle calls came off as more piano Olympics than a call to revolution.
Shifting to more contemporary fare in the second half, the pianist spoke from the stage to introduce the composers Holliger and Rzewski as “extremely committed performers” who are “both a little bit crazy, in the best way possible.” Then he offered a brief road map to Holliger’s seven-movement Partita, with its layers of reference to Bach, Liszt, Bartók, the poet Hölderlin, and some aspects of Schumann’s piano suite Carneval that were obscure to begin with, and were further encrypted in Holliger’s piece.
Having prepared the audience to endure a half hour of brain-spraining music, Vonsattel instead delighted with an “extremely committed” rendering of Holliger’s atonal, challenging, but endlessly inventive score. The stimulating variety of movements included a Prelude of fierce fragments, a comparatively serene Fuga, a fluid yet dramatic Barcarola, and a brief, crazed Csárdás obstiné for comic relief.
The two tributes to Schumann’s riddling “sphinxes” made marvelous use of the inside of the piano, with Vonsattel colorfully executing strums, plucks, thumps, thunder rolls, and glissandi directly on the strings. The quarter-hour-long “monorhythmic chaconne” that closed the work was never less than arresting, as the pianist added layer after layer, and character after character (à la Carneval), to the developing variations.
The revolutionary fervor of Funérailles received a twentieth-century minimalist update in Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, No. 4 from North American Ballads. The performance began with a recording of Pete Seeger delivering an upbeat version of the eponymous song. Then Vonsattel created another of his remarkable piano illusions, turning the instrument’s deep bass into a well-oiled yet somehow menacing throb of heavy machinery, which gradually grew into a rhythmic cacophony of industrial noise.
Along the way, one of the “machines” laid down a boogie-woogie bass, and Liszt’s galloping octaves seemed not far away. Then the piece left the mill for a nostalgic blues, and this time Vonsattel’s rather cool temperament seemed a perfect fit for the music’s understated irony.
“Leave them wanting more” is the rule for performers. This sometimes frustrating but never less than interesting recital closed with its most satisfying performance, and there were no encores.
The next concert of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival is the duo Eviyan (Andrew Rangell, piano, and Aaron Boyd, violin), 8 p.m. Friday.
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