World-renowned pianist Jerome Lowenthal closed out this year's UNCG Focus on Piano Literature Symposium, "Paris in the 1920s," in the School of Music's Recital Hall Saturday night. The performance was a brilliant conclusion to the three-day seminar that was chocked full of lectures, demonstrations, and impressive pianism.
Lowenthal wasted no time to warm up the crowd, jumping immediately into Stravinsky's thorny three-movement Sonata from 1924. This is sturdy stuff. The listener can occasionally recognize that the composer is utilizing Baroque/Classical techniques such as melodic sequences (the immediate repetition of a short phrase on a different note), but most of the piece is chiseled granite — cool and cerebral. The second movement does contain trills and melodic lines that sound a bit like Bach or Beethoven, but the finale flies and demands the precision of a speed typist. Lowenthal qualifies in spades.
Gabriele Fauré's Nocturne No. 13, in B minor, Op. 119, provided a complete contrast. Fauré penned the score at the end of his life, at the age of 76. Lowenthal, also 76, wrung deep emotion out of this luscious morsel that is soaked in melancholy. One would have liked to hear a warmer tone from the piano on such a piece, but perhaps that was not possible with the instrument at hand.
Next up was Francis Poulenc's "Aubade," which began life as a mini-piano concerto to accompany a ballet that was initially choreographed by George Balanchine. The composer arranged the solo piano version, and the eight movements are played without a pause between them.
It was in this piece that one began to really get a feel for the athletic pianism Lowenthal possesses. The rapid-fire Toccata, the virtuosic Recitatif, the break-neck Presto, interrupting the lyric with the violent — the pianist caught it all, with a tongue-in-cheek attitude that is Poulenc's trademark.
When the 25-year-old Darius Milhaud was rejected from military service on medical grounds, he took an English steamer to Brazil, where he remained for a year as an attaché to the French Legation. His time there left an indelible impression on him and is found in his 1920-21 composition, Saudades do Brasil ("Souvenirs of Brazil"). Lowenthal offered three to the audience: "Copacabana," "Ipanema," and "Gavea." Each conjures up the locale with spicy dance rhythms and colorful harmonies that Lowenthal delighted in playing.
Maurice Ravel was not immune to the renewal of interest in French music of the 17th and 18th centuries that took place during the first decades of the 20th century. Concerning the writing of his "Le Tombeau de Couperin" ("At the Tomb of Couperin"), the composer stated "Homage is paid not so much to Couperin alone as to the 18-century French music in general." Couperin was the French Baroque master that resided in King Louis XIV's court. "Le Tombeau" is cast in the form of the Baroque suite, which is a series of dance movements.
However, this work is not a dainty court piece of background music. It is substantial and profound, with each movement dedicated to a French soldier killed in WW I. Although the work is clearly reverent towards the Baroque ideal, it is certainly the 17th century dressed up in 20th century clothing. It is also fiendishly difficult to perform, but Lowenthal's sprightly fingers were up to the challenge.
The first encore was more Poulenc, for which Lowenthal obvious has an affinity. Since the work was an arrangement of a vocal piece, the pianist recited the text for the audience — first in French, and then translated into English. And then he launched into the piece, eventually speaking the text while he played — I could have used a glass of wine for this cabaret-like portion.
The second encore came after the pianist proclaimed "we've had enough music for the evening" and proceeded to recite the poem "Clair de lune" — then to the piano for a lovely rendition of Debussy's piece of the same name. The third encore was an arch-romantic composition for the left hand by Scriabin. Lowenthal's voicing of this gorgeous work was incredible.
As this year's Focus drew to a close, one tries to draw connections between the multitude of compositions written during that fertile time in Paris, and perhaps a paraphrase of John Salmon's program notes are in order: The tapestry is rich, the evenings were multihued.