While it is often refreshing to hear unfamiliar or recent compositions on a classical program, much of the time it is equally satisfying to hear a big ol' meat-and-potatoes serving of familiar masterworks.
That is exactly what Duke faculty pianist Randall Love brought to Baldwin Auditorium on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Love, who specializes in period instruments such as the fortepiano, opened with a work that was written for that very instrument. (We should note that for this performance Love played a modern concert grand.) Mozart's Adagio, K.540, is a stand-alone piece in two sections. It can be played with or without two repeats, and Love chose the shorter approach.
It's a strange little work, and it shares with its close neighbor, the K.533 piano sonata, an almost meandering sense of unpredictability. The performance was accurate and sensitive and shed a welcome light on the intimate, introspective veins in Mozart's late music.
Problems arose almost immediately in Beethoven's rightly-revered Op. 109 piano sonata (No. 30, in E). The opening movement felt shapeless, thanks to muted dynamics and a loose sense of phrase. A significant but quickly-recovered memory lapse in the following scherzo didn't help, and the missed notes that followed were probably the result of the performer being understandably rattled.
The final movement is a miracle of genius in itself. Like the finale of the composer's Op. 111, it is a set of variations and is the center of gravity for the entire piece. Here, though, those variations are bookended by a hymn-like aria. The variations themselves range from the whimsical to the sublime – in at least one case going right from one to the other.
The movement is marked "molto cantabile e espressivo." Under Love's hands the earlier portions could have used a little more of that prescribed song and expression. But in the climactic sixth variation, he found the requisite intensity and drama.
The six pieces comprising Brahms' Op. 118 followed, and from the opening arpeggios of the Intermezzo in a minor it was clear that Love was on familiar, well-travelled (and well-practiced!) ground. All four intermezzos were solidly performed, as was the meltingly beautiful Romance in F. The Ballade was troubled by another memory slip but was otherwise unsullied.
The program concluded with three mazurkas of Chopin and three preludes of Rachmaninoff. Love's performance of the mazurkas (Op. 50, No. 2; Op.24, No.2; and Op.30, No.4) was professional and committed if on the whole unremarkable. But the Rachmaninoff preludes – Op. 32, Nos. 8, 10 and 12 – again found the pianist in a world he could call his own. The playing wasn't note-perfect, but it had far more important things: passion, beauty, attention to detail.
The Rachmaninoff provided the first evidence of the afternoon that the performer was truly having fun. Better yet, that fun was shared by the audience.