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The venerable pianist and teacher, Walter Hautzig, gave a recital in Meredith's Jones Auditorium on Monday night, January 28, 2002, to a nearly full house, including several area professional pianists who continue to study with him. Hautzig turned 80 last fall but still is keeping an active schedule (including an upcoming tour of Japan). This concert was the same that he played for his 80th birthday celebration at New York's Steinway Hall last fall.
Hautzig's playing provided a window into the past, evoking the less flamboyant but personality-filled manner of an earlier era of pianists. Hautzig's delicate touch and tender dynamics were awe-inspiring in their communicative "rightness." In all the shorter pieces, especially those in a more reflective mood, Hautzig's technique and interpretation were highly satisfying. It was only in the longer and more technically demanding works that a certain deliberateness and caution became evident. Nonetheless, any octogenarian who can deliver such warm and characterful playing is to be lauded and should be the envy of many pianists several decades his junior.
Hautzig opened his program with two short pieces, both transcriptions from early operas. The first was a melody from Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurydice , prepared by the Italian composer/pianist Giovanni Sgambati, and the second a minuet from Handel's "Berenice," from Hautzig's teacher, Mieczyslaw Munz. In these Hautzig quickly established his trademark clarity and dynamic control, gentle yet with plenty of forward motion in the Gluck, bold yet unhurried in the Handel.
To finish out the first half, Hautzig bravely tackled Schubert's "Wanderer Fantasy." Although many pianists use this work to show off how loud and fast they can play (a tendency that Hautzig has spoken out against), Hautzig demonstrated that there is another way to play it, with a quiet yet intensive manner. There was much to admire in the wondrous singing quality he found for the Adagio section and the true Viennese lilt he gave the Presto. However, his playing did not keep the architecture of the piece together. Instead, he worked his way through in short sections, each somewhat disconnected from the next. In some cases, he slowed measured down to get all the notes in, making for a labored effect, pulling focus from overall line.
After intermission, Hautzig was back on form with four pieces by Alberto Ginastera, a person friend. The first piece, given to Hautzig by Ginastera's widow, was a short tango called Milonga, originally written to be sung. Hautzig played it with a lovely, quiet melancholy, the undulating changes in dynamics adding to the mood. Following this were the three "Danzas Argentinas". These short sound portraits had great character and rhythmic verve. The "Dance of the Old Herdsman" was all nervous buzz; the "Dance of the Charming Girl" a lesson in bell-like clarity, with a confidently controlled build to a grand climax; the "Dance of the Crooked Cowboy" a humorous, drunken rumble with quick flashed of color. In all of these, Hautzig knowingly delineated the shapes and contours.
In the group of five Chopin pieces which ended the printed program, Hautzig played to several strengths. The delicate ebb and flow of the Nocturne in C-Sharp minor, Op. Post. and the springy rhythms of the two Mazurkas (in C Major, Op. 24, no. 2 and in D Major, Op. 33, no. 2) displayed solid technique and experienced interpretation. The Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23 had lovely light tones and great feeling but suffered from being parceled into sections like the "Wanderer," as did the famous Polonaise in A-Flat major, Op. 5.
However, in his three encores, Hautzig came back to the miniatures of which he is a complete master. First was "Jeunes filles au jardin" by Federico Mompou, a little bit of impressionism with a sweet song-like quality, pristinely caressed from the keys. Second, a gently swaying Viennese waltz tune by Joseph Strauss (Johann, Jr.'s brother) in a transcription by Artur Schnabel, with whom Hautzig also studied. Lastly, a Schubert "Valse sentimentale" - crystalline and shimmering.
Hautzig is one of the last in a line of old masters. Today's new crop of pianists have great energy, facility and dazzle but few exude the style and depth that those such as Hautzig have carefully nurtured through great familiarity with the literature and invaluable training from a previous generation of pianists.