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The Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh, part of the Duke Energy Performing Arts Center, is without question the area’s most perfect public venue for performances that require and celebrate intimacy. A small, fan-shaped auditorium holding a few hundred seats – none of them bad – puts the chamber back in chamber music. It is also a wonderful place for this piano recital presented by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild which had at its core the sublime Sonata in G, D.894, by Franz Schubert.
But a hall is only a hall; it’s the artist who has to fill it with wonder and beauty. Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a pianist, conductor and teacher at the Curtis Institute, showed from the delicately struck opening chords of the Schubert that he knew instinctively how to communicate the tenderness and intimacy of this quietly majestic work. The melodic lines were beautifully voiced, the dynamic contours logical and clearly defined. His wonderfully explosive transition from the exposition to the development section of the opening movement showed that the pianist knows how to share and exploit Schubert’s unfailing ability to introduce drama in all the right places.
The second movement, playful in nature, again had the pianist responding nimbly to dynamic and mood shifts of the contrasting sections. The Menuetto was taken with less muscularity than is often heard, which was just fine. The piece ends with a delightful and almost delicate rondo, and Solzhenitsyn’s interpretation of it was consistent with his respectful and clearly loving performance overall. Schubert would have been thrilled.
Next came Olivier Messiaen’s “The Kiss of the Infant Jesus,” the fifteenth of 20 pieces in the composer’s enormous Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. For those without previous exposure to Messiaen, the music is likely to strike listeners as more interesting than compelling. It helps to know that in addition to being musically gifted -- and not afraid of the new musical frontiers being explored in the early part of the 20th century -- Messiaen was also a devout Catholic, something of a mystic and apparently an amateur ornithologist. Trust me -- you can find it all in the music!
“Kiss” begins with a quiet succession of chords that wander away from and then return to a tonal center. Those chords form a kind of chorale that weaves its way through the entire piece. Sometimes that chorale-like base is embellished with bird calls, at other times it is interrupted by sudden interludes of drama and virtuosity. Near the end, the right hand races over the treble end of the keyboard in a kind of quiet, watery rush that suggests the sublime end to the first movement of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 2. Even those who might not be predisposed to enjoy the music would have had a hard time arguing that Solzhenitsyn’s performance of it was not totally committed and supremely sensitive.
The program concluded with César Franck’s grand Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. As was the case with the Messiaen, the pianist used a score (with no page-turner!) and it was only in the final portions of the Franck that the dependence on the written music seemed to take a slight toll on spontaneity. Even here, and with a few smudged notes arising from the work’s considerable technical challenges, the take-away was one of great sensitivity and affection on the part of a wholly committed performer.
The encore was Schumann’s Romance, Op 28, No.2 No surprise: the performance was notable for its thorough attention to tender expression.
A footnote: The piano for the performance was a Bösendorfer grand. Rarely are venue, performer, program and instrument more fittingly joined.