An Autumn of Pianists in New York

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Gilbert Kalish

Gilbert Kalish

The Concerts at Camphill Ghent
Saturday, October 14 at 3pm
Gilbert Kalish – Piano

D. Shostakovich (1906-1975) – Prelude and Fugue in F# Minor
J.S. Bach (1685-1750) – Prelude and Fugue in F# Minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II
Sheila Silver – Nocturne Based on Raga Jog (2014)s
J. Haydn (1732-1809) – Sonata in Eb Major Hob:XVI 52
Charles Ives (1874-1954) – “The Alcotts” from the Concord Sonata
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) – Andante, from In the Mists (1912)
F. Chopin (1810-1849)
Opus 24 No.1 in G minor (1833)
Opus 50 No.3 in C# minor (1842)
Opus 67 No.4 in A minor (1846)
Opus 48 No.1 in C minor (1841)
Opus 48 No.2 in F# minor (1841)

My own fall season of piano recitals began on a high point with Gilbert Kalish’s appearance at The Concerts at Camphill Ghent. (This is the only concert I shall discuss that did not take place within the confines of Manhattan, although one might in a stretch consider Ghent as local in some indirect way, since it is a mere fifteen minutes drive outside Hudson, and Hudson is surely a colony of New York City, tossing together traits of Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan, and the Upper West Side. Click here for a more general account of the concert series.) Here Mr. Kalish played the sort of carefully pondered, intelligent program he has been known for since the 1960s. It began with a pairing of preludes and fugues by Shostakovich and Bach (in that order), followed by a Nocturne written for Kalish by Sheila Silver. The first half closed with Haydn’s grand late Sonata in Eb Major. After the intermission he played a movement from a work with which he has been closely associated since his early career, Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, and a movement from Janáček’s very beautiful set, In the Mists. Kalish closed the concert with three Chopin Mazurkas judiciously chosen from junctures across the composer’s mature career, and the two Nocturnes Op. 48. In my discussion of this year’s Bard Festival, which was devoted to Chopin, I complained that pianists all too often program his works  without concern for representing his musical development. Mr. Kalish did it right, in this case, showing us Chopin’s early maturity (1833), the height of his powers (1842), and one of his late (1846) works, posthumously published. The movements by Ives and Janáček also kept good company together, with their atmospheric evocations of place and time. With its rich moods and colors, Silver’s Nocturne also showed an affinity with these two.

Kalish’s rich, full tone, clarity, strong hypotactic phrasing of long melodic lines served Shostakovich and Bach admirably and made the intersection of their mentalities felt more persuasively than usual. They were so very different in most ways, especially when it comes down to the religious and spiritual symbolism in Bach’s writing. The mathematics of music were rather more intellectual for the Russian, who brought his own inner despair to his counterpoint. In Mr. Kalish’s hands, Shostakovich seemed uplifted by the association with Bach, so strong was his enthusiasm for following his methods.

Sheila Silver, one of our major composers, like Kalish, a professor at the University of New York at Stony Brook, has sought learning and inspiration in traditional Hindustani music with even more assiduity than Shostakovich in his study of Bach. She has recently concluded her third sojourn in India, where she studies with Pandit Kedar Narayan Bodas. She incorporates into her compositions what she has learned from him with sensitivity and sophistication. In this case she has constructed an essentially western nocturne on raga jog. An exotic aura surrounds the exposition of the raga, but she soon channels the music into the song form and rhetoric of her own idiom. The result gives the pianist ample scope for his pianism and poetic imagination. The work was uncompromising in its technique and range of harmonies and colors but fully accessible—in all, a rewarding meditation.

As I mentioned, Mr. Kalish is famous for his performance of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata, and many of us who love the work, in spite of the numerous virtuosi who play it today, keep going back to his 1976 Nonesuch recording. “The Alcotts,” the third movement, is the shortest and most accessible of the four, but it gave us a taste of his eloquent way with Ives, leaving me with thirst for more. There followed a similar taste of one movement from Janáček’s In the Mists, the composer’s final work for solo piano, although he had still sixteen years and several great operas ahead of him. While there is a powerful sense of nature in the work, it is full of inner experience, much of it painful. Kalish’s sense of melodic shape and color brought out the beauty of the music as well as its agony.

These qualities, as well as a solid sense of meter and tempo, made the Chopin works especially rewarding. With the various approaches of the bevy of pianists brought together by Bard for the Chopin festival still fresh in my ears, I was all the more delighted with this mature, many-sided playing of Chopin. Mr. Kalish immersed himself in each piece, making the most of their individuality with his singing line, flexible sense of space, detail, counterpoint, and harmonic drama and suspense. This was deeply satisfying Chopin.

A fortnight later, I was back in Carnegie Hall for a recital by Marc-André Hamelin, a much younger pianist who has learned from Gilbert Kalish and his generation’s thoughtful, even intellectual approach to programing. Whether he is playing a seemingly conventional all-Mozart or all-Haydn program or a complex mixed program like the one he played at Carnegie, there is always a specific reason for each work to be on it.


Marc-André Hamelin

Marc-André Hamelin

Carnegie Hall
Wednesday, November 1, 2017, 8 pm
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage

Marc-André Hamelin, Piano

Liszt – Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A Minor
Liszt – “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses
Liszt – Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H.
Samuil Feinberg – Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Minor, Op. 6
Debussy – Images, Book I (1905)

Reflets dans l’eau
Hommage à Rameau

L’isle joyeuse
Godowsky – Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss

Debussy – “Feux d’artifice” from Preludes, Book II
Marc-André Hamelin – Toccata on “L’homme armé”
Schumann – “Abschied” from Waldszenen, Op. 82

I think there is a tendency among people who grew up listening to musicians of Gilbert Kalish’s generation—namely Alfred Brendel, who was a champion of Liszt’s music, whereas Kalish is not—to divide his work—and personality—into “good Liszt” and “bad Liszt,”corresponding to the more poetic, less overtly virtuosic work, This is obviously reductive, and not at all what Brendel believed in his efforts to rehabilitate the composer, except insofar as the works he programmed were of the better sort. (He wrote a brilliant defense of the Hungarian Rhapsodies in 1968 and recorded some of them for Vanguard at the time, but never later for Philips.) Brendel, in fact, viewed Liszt as a whole, to be taken seriously in his entirety, as he set forth in his 1961 essay, “Liszt Misunderstood.” Mr. Hamelin, through this program, which was very much about the piano and virtuoso, has his own view of Liszt, which encompasses both the dualistic and the unitarian view of him. Certainly, like Brendel, Hamelin understands him as a composer rooted in the classics, Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach.

We heard this in the first work on the program, the A Minor Hungarian Rhapsody, which takes in both Liszt, the heir of Schubert, and Liszt the virtuoso, In the aforementioned Vanguard recording, Brendel took care to balance both aspects of the work. Hamelin veers more towards the flash, and he clearly wanted it to represent the composer’s extroverted side. He followed this with one of Liszt’s most profound piano pieces, the “Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude” from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, one which was most definitely in Brendel’s mature repertoire. Hamelin’s journey into the foundations of Liszt’s Romanticism reached its goal in his Fantasy and Fugue on B.A.C.H., finding a key element of the composer’s make-up in this solemn and cerebral hommage. Liszt was indeed a composer of powerful intellect as well as expansive feelings. Hamelin played all three with his always magisterial command of technique and color. All require the highest virtuosity, no matter how intimate their sentiment. And even if he did bring us deeply into Liszt’s poetic imagination, he never allowed us to forget the piano and the composer’s towering virtuosity. For both composer and executant the piano is an expressive tool, which which, in terms of technique and color, is to be exploited to the fullest.

Hamelin reasserted the centrality of the instrument in this program in the next work, Samuil Feinberg’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Minor, Op. 6, an intense late-late Romantic composition in one movement. He was indeed influenced by Scriabin, who especially praised Feinberg’s playing of his own Fourth Piano Sonata, but his temperament was of a more visceral, even occasionally tortured nature. Feinberg (Odessa 1890-Moscow 1962) enjoyed considerable fame as a pianist, whose repertoire, like Liszt’s, was founded on Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin, then, of course, Scriabin. The Well-Tempered Clavier was a speciality of his. His studio recordings are among the greatest readings of the WTC, happily available from Pristine Classical in greatly improved sound. As a composer, he clove to the cutting edge of the modern in his earlier career, exploring atonality and complex counterpoint, then reverting to a quasi-diatonic mode later on. Feinberg composed the sonata played in this program in 1918, three years after Scriabin’s death and could be taken as an “hommage” or “tombeau.” Its flow of impressionistic and Scriabinesque figurations veils the strong counterpoint beneath. Hamelin executed the piece to perfection. It benefitted greatly from the clarity he was able to achieve with his powerful technique, as well as his flexible tempo and dramatic emphasis.

Feinberg’s wild but rigorous music set a very particular backdrop for Debussy’s Images, Book I (1905) which Mr. Hamelin played in an entirely different context at the 92nd Street Y in 2013. They surely would have been known to Feinberg, as echoes of them in his sonata suggested. Debussy not only paved the way for Messiaen and Boulez, but more immediately in composers working in the first quarter of the century. He also looked backward, carrying on the tradition of the great 19th century composers of short piano pieces. In his program note Harry Haskell refused to take seriously Debussy’s remark that the Images would “take their place in the piano literature” either “to the left of Schumann or the right of Chopin,” but in fact that is precisely the historical stream into which he launched  them. Unlike Ian Hobson, whom I shall discuss below, Hamelin played them rather objectively, as works unto themselves, containing their models as spiritual imprints, while reinterpreting their pianistic writing in terms of the early 20th century.

The final work on the program, Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Johann Strauss (1912), by Leopold Godowsky, whose music has been (I can’t quite go as far as to say “sadly,” but it surely deserves to be heard) neglected since the War, was yet another example of a pianist-composer creating a unique challenge in technique and interpretation. It is more overtly nostalgic than Debussy’s Images, with its dreamy recollections of Strauss melodies, floating through atmospheric figurations of astonishing difficulty and delicacy. In it one could feel the presence of the ghosts of the 19th century wafting among Edwardian ladies and gentlemen, as they waltzed among potted palms and enormous mirrored doors. This is the sort of piece about which other pianists say—with some relief—that only Hamelin can play it.

In case we didn’t get Mr. Hamelin’s historical narrative, his encores included more Debussy, “Abschied” from Schumann’s Waldszenen, and his own Toccata on “L’homme armé.”

The playing of Marc-André Hamelin, apart from being an extraordinary display of technique and perception, I find almost always totally convincing, as I listen to it. It is so perfect that it can be difficult to characterize. In last year’s splendid all-Mozart program, he created a narrative about the composer’s development, while playing the works straightforward manner which suited them to perfection. His technique may encompass the likes of Feinberg and Godowsky, but he hasn’t forgotten the challenge in Mozart, which he can face with unerring understanding and good taste.


Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

Carnegie Hall, Zankel Hall
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Paul Lewis
Haydn – Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI: 50
Beethoven – Bagatelles, Op. 126
Brahms – Klavierstücke, Op. 118
Haydn – Piano Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: 40

Paul Lewis was at his very best in this interesting program of classics. He bookended his recital with two of Haydn’s wittiest sonatas, immersing himself in musical humor of the best sort. Mr. Lewis, like Haydn, got his laughs through wit, rather than antics—and some whirlwind tempi! In the more serious bits, his tone was both brilliant and rich, entirely appropriate for a modern-instrument performance of an 18th century master. For Beethoven, his Bagatelles were likewise a vehicle for humor, but here Lewis seemed more interested in tempering them with the more Romantic, reflective moods which come and go in their brief duration. Here he enriched his tone and pedalled amply, but not too much. All of Beethoven’s fleeting details came through sharply etched. Brahms’ Op. 118 formed the spiritual core of the program. These were rich, serious readings which did full justice to Brahms’s Romantic sentiments as well as his Bachian rigor, which is clearly apparent in the contrapuntal passages.


Kimiko Ishizaka

Kimiko Ishizaka

Carnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall
Sunday, November 19, 2017

Kimiko Ishizaka, Piano

J.S. Bach – The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

If I remember correctly, this is Kimiko Ishizaka‘s second New York recital. Of mixed German-Japanese parentage, she resides in Cologne with her American husband. To judge by her concert programs and recording releases so far, she specializes in the music of Bach, but she is constantly exploring other composers, notably Chopin, who, given his devotion to Bach, above all to the Well-Tempered Clavier, is closely knit with her more public interests.

Her performance of a single work, The Art of Fugue, showed above all that the art of playing Bach on a modern piano is alive and well. Her playing was as perceptive, enlightening, persuasive, and enjoyable as any performance of Bach I have heard—on any instrument, but specifically on the modern piano, and this includes the redoubtable Angela Hewitt. Ms. Ishizaka seemed entirely at home on Weill Hall’s warm house piano, and her Bach was accordingly warm and rich in tone, in spite of her sensible eschewal of the sustaining pedal. She had a particular strategy in approaching each section, and this she followed consistently. Her tempi in the opening sections, especially in the first two-thirds of the whole, tended to be rather broad and her phrasing clear and pointed, although never overemphatic or pedantic. She wanted the audience to hear the theme in whatever form it appeared and moved gradually into the central portion of each fugue, as her intellectual beginnings transformed themselves into more physical and emotional expression. Occasionally she seemed to quicken the tempo subtly, but even if she didn’t, her playing grew more intense. Also her ability to inflect and shade every note in a phrase is extraordinary. Her particular aesthetic depends on the variety of phrasing and color she can introduce into a melody, while still maintaining the integrity of the musical idea.

I had not heard Ms. Ishizaka play before, and I was drawn to the concert by a craving for The Art of Fugue. I was not disappointed. This was one of the most involving and enlightening performances I have heard, and I’ll certainly not miss her future appearances, when they are within reach. As far a New York goes, that means every other year at this point.

It is worth noting that she presents her work in a thoroughly up-to-date and actually very generous manner on the pay-what-you-will Bandcamp site. So far, in addition to a Debussy cellection and Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28 (played on an 1842 Pleyel instrument), The Art of Fugue, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, and the “Goldberg” Variations are available. The latter can be streamed on SoundCloud gratis, or purchased in high-quality FLAC or ALAC files from Bandcamp. As her site declares, “The Open Goldberg Variations were released on May 28, 2012. Recorded by Kimiko Ishizaka on a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial in the Teldex Studio, Berlin, produced by Anne-Marie Sylvestre, this recording is the first fan-funded, open source and completely free recording ever produced. In addition, has made a new published edition of the Goldbergs using an open peer review process and leading-edge open source software. Best of all, everything produced is free for you to use, share, and copy, forever.”

Discovering Kimiko Ishizaka’s musicianship was one of the high points of the autumn for me.


Haochen Zhang

Haochen Zhang

Carnegie Hall, Zankel Hall
Saturday, November 18, 2017 7:30 PM
Haochen Zhang, Piano

Schumann – Kinderszenen, Op. 15
Schumann – Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13
Liszt – Transcendental Etude No. 5 in B-flat Major, “Feux follets”
Liszt – Trancendental Etude No. 12 in B-flat Minor, “Chasse neige”
Janáček – In the Mists
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83

I hesitate to review Haochen Zhang‘s impressive recital, because a previous commitment made it possible to hear only the second half. Even that, however, made it clear that he is a musician of extraordinary technical mastery and perception. Born in 1990, he is a graduate of the Curtis School of Music, where he studied under Gary Graffman, and winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition—no mean credentials! He is already regarded as something of a hero in China—or, should I say, superstar—as a packed Zankel Hall attested: there were numerous contingents of Chinese families bringing children to inspire them and countless young Chinese women. I have never seen a performer, male or female, accoladed with so many bouquets. I should mention one bit of local color before moving on to the music, which was a teenager explaining to his younger brother (10 or so) about the Well-Tempered Clavier. Where else would one overhear an interchange like this between two young brothers?

In any case Haochen Zhang’s Liszt proved both musical and highly virtuosic. The grand fortissimi were powerful and the more introverted moments properly subdued. Even at the loudest bars, he maintained a warm, pleasing tone. Zhang’s approach to texture is selective. He blurs arpeggi with ample pedal, but at the same time he makes particular lines he wishes to emphasize stand out clearly. He is less interested in overall detail and clarity—a technique which should stand him in good stead when he plays in larger halls than Zankel.

One blessing this program offered was an opportunity to hear Janáček’s In the Mists complete. Mr. Zhang’s basic sound is large, but within this he was able to explore the more intimate aspects of these highly personal expressions. The composer’s tempi are largely slow: Andante-Molto Adagio-Andante, concluded by a Presto, which is a true presto only for a few moments. Each movement begins with a distinct tune of a melancholy bent, suggestive of Czech folk-music, which slips into either more rhapsodic, more passionate, or even pained excursions. Following the melodies is the essence of this work. This was a committed performance which visited many corners of Janáček’s tonal and dynamic palette, if there was anything to criticize, it might be that Mr. Zhang made the pieces seem more virtuosic than they actually are, and the music became rather too busy for us to enter into its melodic and poetic dimensions.

Mr. Zhang closed the program with Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, a bright, virtuosic work, which enabled him to go out in a blaze of technical display, but not without musical substance. The first movement is troubled and dramatic, the second more intimate and lyrical.

One felicitous gambit of Mr. Zhang’s appeared in several of the more intimate sections. He likes to slow the tempo slightly and holds to a steady meter and appropriate pianissimo. This reminded me of a similar approach which Alfred Brendel favored, when he was playing. However, as Zhang handled them, these passages sounded all the same. The mood, texture, and color seemed imposed like a method rather than like an expression that emerged organically from the music that preceded it. Perhaps this is a reminder that Haochen Zhang is only twenty-seven, something we are like to forget, given the general maturity of his playing. We can look forward to many years of outstanding playing and musical development ahead.

After the concert Mr. Zhang, surrounded six deep by his young countrywomen, signed copies of his latest CD on the BIS label. This includes Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which he played in the recital (before my arrival, unfortunately!), Liszt’s second Ballade, Janáček’s Sonata “From the Streets”, and Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Op. 117. As we await Haochen Zhang’s return to New York, we can enjoy his playing on this excellent disc.


Ian Hobson

Ian Hobson

Subculture, Wednesday, November 29, 2017, 7:30pm

Ian Hobson

Ravel – Minuet in C-Sharp Minor (1904)
Debussy – Danse bohémienne (1880)
Deux Arabesques (1890-91)
Morceau de concours (1904)
Images [oubliées] (1894)
Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit (1908)
Debussy – Préludes (Book 2, 1912-13)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017, 7:30pm
Ravel – Menuet Antique (1895)
Debussy – Ballade slave (1890-91)
La Plus que Lente, valse (1910)
Épigraphes Antiques (1914-15)
Ravel – Pavane pour une Enfante Défunte (1899)
Prélude (1913)
Debussy – Le Petit Nègre (1909)
Ravel – Sonatine (1903-05)
Debussy – Children’s Corner (1906, 1908)

My season of piano recitals closed, most gratifyingly, with two programs from Ian Hobson’s New York season, which is ongoing at SubCulture, with concerts coming up on February 7th and 28th as well as April 4th and 18th. In his biennial cycles, Hobson concentrates on a particular composer or theme. In recent years he has concentrated on Brahms as classicist and romantic in his chamber music, as well as “Preludes, Études, Variations,” an exploration of these forms, mostly in the solo piano music of Chopin, Debussy, and Rachmaninoff, as well as some living composers, from whom he commissioned new works. His season programs are always the result of thorough consideration, research, and an adventurous spirit, often leading him into unfamiliar territories, such as the new commissions or neglected works by renowned composers, for example, Chopin’s Variations on “La ci darem la mano,” Op. 2, one of his earliest compositions, which first drew the attention of Robert Schumann as an admiring critic.

This year, in his parallel traversal of the piano works of Debussy and Ravel, he has included unfamiliar versions of familiar music by Debussy, as well as seldom-played early works. These early efforts have inspired him to adjust his perspective on the later work into presenting it as a development from beginnings which had their roots in 19th century salon music, above all the short character pieces of Schumann or the more abstract musical narratives of Chopin. In this way Ian Hobson is one of the most interesting and convincing pianists we hear today.

Hobson alerted us on his intentions with a group of rarely played works by both composers. These showed them writing either in a distinct national style, mimicking Chopin, Liszt, Smetana, or Dvořák, as Debussy did in his Danse bohémienne (1880), one of his earliest surviving pieces, or à l’antique, like Ravel in the two Minuets included on the programs, a style he was to perfect in his Sonatine of 1903-05. In his playing Hobson played the early works with strong characterization, a strategy he continued in the mature works, making their relationship to the juvenilia clear. Not matter how individual and sophisticated Debussy’s piano writing was to become, he never forgot the intimate and entertaining salon music of his youth, according to Hobson. The dominant stream in performance is to play them in a lofty, impressionistic style, as if the maturation of this universal modern idiom had divorced the writing of both Debussy and Ravel from any earthly social context. This may be more apposite to Ravel than to Debussy, whose love of the character-piece grew only stronger in a modernized form in his late Preludes, Book 2, which Mr. Hobson played with great verve in his first program. He used the pedal freely, but varied blurred figurations with sharply etched details, often dramatically pointed. Hobson embraced his entire project in this first recital, which closed on this masterpiece of Debussy, followed by Ravel’s greatest piano work, Gaspard de la Nuit, also in an eloquent performance.

Apart from the great mature works on these programs, it was especially fascinating to hear the rarely played early Images oubliées, which Debussy himself never published, possibly because he used music from the second and third movements, “Dans le mouvement d’une Sarabande,” and “Quelques aspects de ‘Nous n’irons plus aux bois'” in later works, respectively, in Pour le piano and the “Rondes de printemps” in Images for orchestra.

There are many more treasures and treasurable moments to come in the four concerts remaining in Ian Hobson’s series, and that will be something to look forward to. Meanwhile this retrospective will give you some idea of the variety of approaches to the piano that flourish today across the generations.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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