It was a banner week in the Triangle for piano enthusiasts. The William S. Newman Artists Series, named in memory of UNC's distinguished scholar, pianist, and teacher, got underway on September 30 with a marvelous recital in Hill Hall by Nelita True, of Eastman. Her concert was part of a three-day residency hosted by the UNC Department of Music, and it was concurrently "family weekend" at UNC, so there were some young prospects for UNC – and some parents thereof – in attendance.
Her name is probably not familiar to the typical music lover or record collector, although she's performed widely and recorded many works. Like Dr. Newman, however, her life seems to have been devoted largely to teaching, and her discography is limited for the most part to educational products. That's a shame, for she's a splendid artist who can clearly do as well as she teaches – and that she is a master teacher is evident from her many, many students, including UNC's Thomas Otten!
The program itself was remarkable, even before she played the first note, for although it encompassed many of the usual recital suspects – Haydn, Beethoven, and Chopin – it began with Schumann and ended with works by both Fauré and Poulenc. Now as our regular readers know, he (or she) who plays Fauré is my friend – and he (or she) who plays Fauré and Poulenc is automatically right up there with the utmost cream of the crop. Wow!
True's performance of Schumann's Romance in F Sharp, Op. 28/2, seemed a bit rushed but was finely shaded, and she brought out the inner voices masterfully. She began Beethoven's C Major Sonata, Op. 2/3, like a house afire but as her listeners settled into the reading her performance proved engaging. The slow movement was spellbinding – she conveyed its emotional depths with wondrous skill – and if the last two sections again seemed somewhat pressed, her overview was sound. There is of course much to be said for risk-taking in well-known works.
There weren't any program notes, but True introduced several numbers, including Chopin's dark and – as she said – "ominous" Scherzo in b flat minor, Op. 31. This, too, might have benefited from greater lyricism but the interpretation was valid and gripping, and she was recalled several times before the intermission.
Haydn's Sonata in D, H.XVI/37 was the evening's great revelation, perhaps due to its placement on the program but surely augmented by True's magnificent performance, which was clear and crisp and astutely paced. Her reading gave constant delight, from start to finish.
So, too, did the closing groups – by Fauré (two impromptus and an "improvisation" from the master's Op. 84) and Poulenc (the Improvisation in a minor and the Toccata). There was exceptional light and shade and insight in these works, surely the result of years of study and thought, and in the last piece, True showed that she has technique to burn, and the substantial audience knew it, too – she was rapturously applauded and ultimately rewarded her listeners with polished readings of a Chopin mazurka and a charming little waltz. This was, by any standard, a brilliant concert, one that dazzled the intellect and enriched the soul, too. Brava!
On the same night as True's UNC recital, Italian pianist Gianni Della Libera made his US debut in Asheville, at the Diana Worthham Theatre; he appeared the next evening (10/1) in Ruggero Piano Company's Bösendorfer Hall, playing a spanking new Fazioli grand, which line the company now represents, and which instruments come from Sacile, the small town near Venice where the visiting artist was born in 1966. Among premium piano lines, B'dorfer and Fazioli occupy special places, and it's a feather in Richard Ruggero's cap that he offers both brands. We've written about Faziolis previously – Marvin J. Ward reviewed a wonderful book in which a Fazioli "plays" an important role, William T. Walker reviewed a CD by Susan Chan performed on one, and Carrboro pianist Greg McCallum encountered one in New York in the fall of 2003 (cited in our news column).
The relatively brief Raleigh program began with two Chopin polonaises – Op. 26/1 and Op. 53. Both were grandly played albeit somewhat larger than life and almost certainly with more power than the composer himself might have employed. The instrument took all the artist had to offer with room to spare – it's a beauty to hear and to see, too, glistening in the flattering light of the small, compact venue. Schubert's splendid "Wanderer Fantasy" revealed a keyboardist who can bring light and shade to his work although portions of this – like some of the Chopin – seemed to these ears almost unrelenting in volume. For two sections of Keith Jarrett's celebrated 1975 Köln concert – presumably in the improviser's own transcription (described at http://www.eecs.umich.edu/~lnewton/music/KolnConcert.html [inactive 5/06]) – Della Libera used sheet music, and for reasons that are not altogether clear, the results were not very satisfactory. Perhaps the idiom is not yet part and parcel of his artistic profile. Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (in its solo-piano incarnation) was altogether more successful, although it often seemed hard-pressed – there are moments therein for reflection, and surely in future performances those passages will emerge a bit more relaxed than on this occasion. For sure, Della Libera has a huge technique and awesome power. My chief regret is that there were no samples of Italian keyboard music – neither early nor contemporary – from this Italian artist, playing a great Italian piano. For the moment, he shares a website with Alberto Crivellari at http://www.albertocrivellari.com/ilduopianistico/.
There was still more Schubert on the evening of October 2 when Frank Pittman, whose playing has meant so much to this writer since he (Pittman) was a student at UNC more years ago than either of us might care to remember, offered a short program prefaced with Bach and Schoenberg in Meredith's Carswell Recital Hall. Pittman's interests are wide-ranging, as his recital demonstrated. Chances are good that his passion for literature has been enhanced by his studies at UNCG, where his DMA awaits only the completion of his dissertation. His remarks on the three selections – the Prelude and five-voice Fugue in b-flat minor, S.867, from WTC I, by Bach, Schoenberg's astonishingly brief and often (but not invariably) astringent  Kleine Klavierstücke, Op. 19, and Schubert's Sonata in B-Flat, D.960 – were right on the money and delivered with a bit of wit, too. The Bach was splendidly played, the inner voices radiant, the architecture of the great fugue clearly etched. Pittman made a strong case for the Schoenberg – how sad it is that music now 94 years old must still be argued for! – and brought its components to vivid life. At the end of the last one, there was barely a second's pause before he launched into the Schubert, creating in the process an extraordinary effect comparable to one or two of Ray Kilburn's Peace College recitals but otherwise virtually unheard – and unheard of – since the heyday of the great Josef Hofmann, who was known for improvising bridges between selections to avert the intrusion of applause. Here, in Carswell, a small room with great "presence," the effect was like seeing a blossom open at dawn – and it made the fact that the sonata was Schubert's last major work all the more poignant; as Pittman had reminded us, this was it, as the master was then cut down in the flower of his youth and creativity. The performance was engaging and often gripping – this is great stuff. It was yet another reminder of the importance of live performances, as opposed to recordings by whomever, made whenever.... There were some lapses in the finale, but the artist recovered fairly quickly. Pittman is a significant artist by any standard, and an important teacher, and a wonderful collaborator (who will on October 24 embark with Carol Chung on a season-long survey of all the Mozart violin and piano sonatas – see our calendar for details). That he's living and working here is just one more plus about life in the Triangle. He's worth going out of the way to hear, anytime, anywhere.
To continue a sports analogy begun elsewhere in this issue by Jeffrey Rossman, it was pianist Kent Lyman, of Meredith College, who found the bases loaded when he came up to bat on Tuesday, October 4, and the home run he hit brought in the other three and more, too. Lyman's work – like Pittman's – has attracted our notice many times before, and his recital – of music by Mozart, Brahms, Richard Faith, and Prokofiev – was practically de rigueur for area keyboard buffs. Never mind the piano itself, which – in retrospect – surely gave Pittman fits, too, two days before.* It's apparently problematical action was almost certainly responsible for some of the gaps in what would otherwise have been crystalline runs in Mozart's frothy Sonata in B-flat, K.281, which (like Nelita True, in her Beethoven last Friday) began like a house afire. Fortunately, Lyman has the requisite chops to pull it off at high speed, and pull it off he did, in the opening and closing sections, too. The slow movement, marked "Andante amoroso," was truly gorgeous, singing with great lyricism, straight from Mozart's and Lyman's hearts to ours. Five selections from Brahms' Klavierstücke, Op. 76, then enriched the proceedings. It's a fact that good pianists can play anything, but this was a wide-ranging program, and insightful readings of introspective pieces by Brahms don't come our way every day, by any means. Carswell is small enough to be considered an intimate venue, and Lyman's work in three capriccios and two intermezzi suggested the rare experience of having a distinguished artist play for just one or two other people.
Composer Richard Faith (b.1926) is all the rage hereabouts; his music has turned up on Meredith programs and offerings of the Raleigh Symphony's Free Spirits Ensemble. Lyman explained one possible reason – the composer was here, a while back, and he played his Sonata No. 1 (1945-62) during his visit. The pianist liked it enough to work it up himself, and his performance was outstanding. This is contemporary music that envelops listeners, rather than assaulting them. It's loaded with heart-warming melodies including, in the finale, a close quotation of a grand old hymn (George J. Evey's "Come ye thankful people, come"). It was very enthusiastically received, too.
And then with only a few preparatory remarks, Lyman hauled us to another place and time for the percussive and virtuosic Sonata No. 6 of Prokofiev, which some find not very user-friendly, despite a few tunes that might have been lifted from the composer's great ballets. It doesn't do to play the "Wartime Sonatas" as if one were a machine, but it helps to have machine-like repetitive-motion skills, and Lyman does. As a result, the fast portions were very, very fast and precise, the tempos were steady, and the cumulative effect was exhilarating. In addition, the pianist's interpretive skills made the waltz movement a gem within somewhat iron-clad – or perhaps armor-plated – surroundings.
For the record, Lyman's in the import-export business on the side, and this program is going to get "the treatment" – he's taking it to Brazil next week. One would be hard-pressed to come up with a better sample of outstanding US musicianship.
*Note: That piano.... Hummm. UNC has two fairly new Steinways. "The Symphony" (as in the NCS) has a new one (albeit with some probs). NCSU just got a new piano. And Meredith needs a new one. Someone with a passion for pianos – surely Meredith has trained such a person! – is welcome to step forward. I'll bet that naming rights could be arranged. And think how much the Meredith keyboard people – and area music lovers – would appreciate it!