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The Asheville Art Museum continued its Pianoforte Series with an afternoon recital by Teresa Sumpter, Assistant Professor of Piano at Mars Hill College. The concentration was on twentieth-century music with works by Bernstein, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Montsalvatge. The only piece from an earlier century was a sonata by Beethoven.
In his program notes, Bill Clark tells us that Leonard Bernstein composed his 1981 piano piece "Touches" as a competition piece "requiring different feels of the fingers, hand and arms" in its eight short variations. After the initial Chorale section, the variations demonstrate affects ranging from jazz syncopation and whimsy through lyricism and "sturm und drang" drama. There is a reminder of West Side Story in variation six and elsewhere some hints of twelve-tone serial music (which Bernstein did not embrace). Performing a work such as this requires the ability to turn on a dime. Ms. Sumpter did just this, adopting one new emotion after another with no apparent transition time.
Alexander Scriabin's Four Preludes, Op. 37, is a mid-career work of the Russian composer. Scriabin's harmonic complexity sounds so modern that it is hard to remember that the piece is now more than a century old. His compositional thoughts include harmonies that later infected the jazz scene, but are used here in a profoundly romantic idiom. The third short prelude of this opus is the only quiet one, and could have been more contemplative than here performed. Otherwise this group worked well.
Ludwig van Beethoven's Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major ("Das Lebewohl") is a piece of program music reflecting the emotions Beethoven associated with the departure, absence and eventual return to Vienna of Archduke Rudolph of Austria. Ms. Sumpter tackled this sonata with mixed results. The middle movement was pleasing, showing the ennui of Beethoven missing his friend and patron during the absence. However, the two outer movements were clouded by an inconsistent tempo. In particular, the Allegro of the first movement never got anchored, and consequently sounded rushed. Excessive pedal led to muddy runs in this acoustically live concert space. The same two problems – varying tempo and blurry runs – recurred in the third movement "Vivacissimamente." The tempo was better anchored when runs were being played against arpeggios, but without the arpeggios, there were times that I thought an axle had broken on the Archduke's wagon.
Following intermission, we were back to the twentieth century with better results. Two of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Preludes (G major and C minor) and two of his Etudes-tableaux (G minor and E-flat major) formed a nice grouping, with notably good voicing in the C-minor Prelude. This intelligent programming also allowed us to contemplate the difference between two Russian composers in the same decade: Scriabin looking forward to new harmonies that presaged modernism in the later twentieth century while Rachmaninoff looked backward to Tchaikovsky and the height of the romantic era.
The final work on the program was Sonatine pour Yvette, written in 1962 by the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge. The first movement depicts his happy five-year-old daughter, using a naive melody but very complicated rhythmic structure. The second movement uses beautifully constructed dissonant harmony that, as played by Ms. Sumpter, seems inevitable. The final Allegretto includes a quotation from the children's song "Ah, vous dirai-je Maman" ("Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star") and also a quotation, with very thick added harmony, of the motif from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. I love the piece and the way it was performed with gusto and authority. This is becoming Ms. Sumpter's signature piece, and it is a charming one; I hope to hear it many more times.