Sunday, 18 October 2009

THE JOY OF MUSIC FESTIVAL 2009: Gary Graffman Piano Recital / Review

GARY GRAFFMAN Left Hand Piano Recital
City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong
Wednesday (14 October 2009)

Today marks the 81st birthday of the great American pianist and pedagogue Gary Graffman, but do not even begin to suggest that he gradually tail off his activities. Possessing the musical sensibilities of a sage and the vitality of a teenager, his stupendous piano recital of left hand piano music combined the programmes from his 2006 and 2007 concerts, with several new additions.

The familiar Two Pieces Op.9 by Alexander Scriabin opened the demanding programme; the wistful Prélude retained its melodic line throughout, and a seamless flow distinguished the well-known Nocturne in D flat major. Jay Reise’s transcription of the Étude in C sharp minor (Op.2 No.1) is a positive rarity, but it faithfully follows the original while sprinkling some naughty exotic harmonies.

Carl Reinecke’s Sonata in C minor (composer left) in three movements was the big piece of the recital. Flushed in Romantic colours and gestures, it came across as an engaging work with pleasant enough themes worth more than several listens. Despite its plethora of notes, one began to wonder whether the limitations of writing for one hand had militated against going for broke musically. This is not a criticism of Graffman’s amazing technique but rather an observation of a certain awkwardness of the medium. Try running a 100 metre sprint on one leg, for example. Nevertheless, this is not a work for the arthritic, with its quick central scherzo and tempestuous finale that reminded one of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude, written in the same key and ending on a triumphant C major.

The other big piece was Brahms’ transcription of the Bach Chaconne in D minor (from the Violin Partita No.2). Possessed with far fewer notes that Busoni’s famous take, it is however far more faithful to the original inspiration. Here, Graffman was the perfect guide and his unerring control acted as story-teller par excellence. His conception built up arch-like to a magnificent climax and closing on a chord of nobility.

One would have imagined Max Reger’s Four Special Etudes (composer left) to be a dour affair but thanks to Graffman’s deft handling, it was rather engaging. The first two pieces – Scherzo and Vivace – seemed cut from the same cloth, both demonstrating agility with runs up and down the keyboard. The Romanze had a lovely chorale melody and much was made of it. The final Preludium and Fugue was neo-Bachian with delicious harmonies, closing the set on a contrapuntal high.

Two 20th century American works provided the contrasts, first with Leon Kirchner’s For The Left Hand, which was chromatic, almost atonal but not forbiddingly so. The first movement from John Corigliano’s Etude-Fantasy, now a popular competition piece, filled the air with bell-like ostinatos and resonances, delicious spice for the palate.

Out and out virtuosity capped this special evening. There is no more beautiful left hand piece than Felix Blumenfeld’s Étude in A flat major (Op.36, left), its melancholic melody an expression of Romanticism in full bloom. Blumenfeld was a teacher of Horowitz, who in turn taught Graffman, so there is a special connection. Graffman also made light of the phenomenal demands of two Chopin-Godowsky Études, No.13 (based on the E flat minor study, Op.10 No.6) and No.41 (Octave study in B minor, Op.25 No.10). More importantly, he coaxed more colours in one hand than many pianists with both. Such is the true meaning of artistry. Happy Birthday, GG!

The Joy of Music Festival is organised by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong.

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