Two Young Pianists, Forging Connections

Friday, February 26, 2010

Most young classical musicians feel pressure to stand out. If handled right, though, this pressure can be a productive force in an emerging artist’s life.

It is not enough to play an instrument — or sing or conduct — brilliantly. You have to search within yourself and define your artistic identity. Your performances should convey what you believe in, what excites you.

Last weekend two thriving young pianists with strong, though wildly contrasting, artistic profiles gave recitals in New York. Even the circumstances of these concerts could not have been more different.

The inquisitive, elegant Israeli pianist David Greilsammer, 32, presented a recital at the Walter Reade Theater, part of Lincoln Center’s Sunday Morning Coffee Concerts series, in which programs of roughly 60 minutes are followed by a coffee-and-muffin reception with the artists in the lobby. Mr. Greilsammer, also the music director of the Geneva Chamber Orchestra, is fascinated by musical connections. His program, “Gates,” offered works by composers from Rameau and Monteverdi to Ligeti and John Adams, with stops through Scarlatti, Janacek and more.

Then, on Sunday evening, the Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, 34, played an all-Russian program at Carnegie Hall, capped by Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” in a concert presented by Maestro Artist Management. Mr. Matsuev, who came to attention after winning the 1998 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, is an athletically virtuosic pianist. He has made his name with Russian Romantic works. From a certain perspective, this is an unadventurous choice. Still, here is an artist embracing his heritage, surely one way to be true to yourself.

For Mr. Greilsammer, the potential risk from programs that leap around is that the experiment can seem gimmicky. In his recital here, the choices of pieces and the musical connections among them were striking and provocative. Most important, the playing was exquisite.

In titling the program “Gates,” Mr. Greilsammer evoked the notion of walking from one gallery to another at an art exhibition and coming upon stunningly different artistic images. This recital was his attempt at a musical equivalent of that visual experience.

Though not explicitly stated, his larger goal, it seemed, was to let his audience hear the resonances he detects in works written over a span of 400 years. He began with Rameau’s “Gavotte et six doubles,” or Six Variations, a piece for harpsichord from 1729. It was riveting, and also touching, to see the wiry, bookish Mr. Greilsammer playing Rameau’s delicate gavotte and three of the variations with such tenderness and intimacy. With this first piece, he was asking his Sunday morning listeners to settle in and follow him on his journey.

It was a surprisingly easy leap when he shifted to Ligeti’s wondrously strange “Musica ricercata” No. 7, which nods to the Baroque but is actually a modernist experiment: a softly grumbling left-hand ostinato is repeated over and over as a lacy, elusive melodic line spins out.

The next musical leaps were wilder and even more intriguing. Ligeti gave way to an unfinished neo-Baroque Suite in C by Mozart, then to Satie’s dreamy Gnossienne No. 3, and then, of all things, to an aria from Monteverdi’s opera “Orfeo,” deftly arranged for piano by Mr. Greilsammer.

A compelling performance of a movement from Janacek’s fitful Sonata (Oct. 1, 1905) “From the Street” led immediately, and somehow fittingly, to a pensive Scarlatti sonata, and then to the central work of the program: John Adams’s “China Gates,” music rich with tinkling piano sounds, Minimalist riffs and modal harmonies.

From the Adams, Mr. Greilsammer went in reverse order through the same composers he had played, performing, for example, another Scarlatti sonata, another movement of the Janacek. He ended, as he had begun, with the Rameau gavotte and the three remaining variations.

Afterward, the audience gathered in the lobby to have coffee and meet the artist, who signed copies of his Naïve label recordings. His latest offers him as pianist and conductor in sensitive, articulate accounts of Mozart’s Piano Concertos 22 and 24, with the Suedama Ensemble.

Though Mr. Matsuev has played his share of diverse repertory, he has focused on Romantic and early-20th-century Russian works. By claiming this particular mantle Mr. Matsuev raises the stakes. The implication is that he brings special insight to that heritage. Over the years I have heard of lots of flashy, expressively indulgent performances of Russian repertory in the name of preserving the Russian Romantic style. Some of Mr. Matsuev’s playing came across that way here.

Not at first. To begin, he played Tchaikovsky’s suite of novelty pieces, “The Seasons,” one work for each month of the year. These miniatures are generally considered charming, if slight. Not so fast, Mr. Matsuev said through his engaging performance. Played complete, the suite lasts 40 minutes, and there are challenging and inventive elements in each piece.

Built like a weightlifter, curly-haired and boyish, Mr. Matsuev exudes charisma. His piano sound has depth and body, even in soft passages. He brought lyrical grace and rich detail to “The Seasons.” He then gave free-wheeling, big-toned and technically polished accounts of Rachmaninoff works: two Études-tableaux; a prelude; and a toccatalike Fugue in D minor, a student work.

But he lost me with “Pictures at an Exhibition.” As if to rescue this staple from familiarity, Mr. Matsuev played it with steely, often bombastic aggressiveness. Even in wistful, quieter pieces like “The Old Castle,” his playing was distended with pronounced use of Romantic rubato. “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs,” which evokes the dwelling of the witch Baba Yaga, was a din of cascading octaves and brutal chords, played at hyper-drive.

The house was packed, and people everywhere were speaking Russian. The ovations were enormous, especially for Mr. Matsuev’s virtuoso-circus-act encores, including an arrangement of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” played with sledgehammer power. Pity the poor Steinway.

Yet you have to say that Mr. Matsuev has a clear artistic identity. And, as his Tchaikovsky showed, he is capable of refined music making.

Mr. Greilsammer is a standout musician who has it in him to challenge, inform and delight audiences. During the reception I overheard one person saying that he thought Mr. Greilsammer’s experiment did not go far enough, that there was too much “sameness” in the pieces, especially the first few. When a listener asserts that Rameau, Ligeti, Mozart and Satie sound similar, I think Mr. Greilsammer can claim success at showing the connections among seemingly disparate music.

New York Times

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI






 
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