Monday, 14 May 2012

STEVEN SPOONER Piano Recital / Review

Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (12 May 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 May 2012 with the title "Voting in the halcyon era of great pianists".

Originally entitled a Sviatoslav Richter Commemorative Recital, American pianist Steven Spooner, piano professor at University of Kansas, gave his audience a choice of four different recital programmes to choose from. This element of serendipity, interaction, and ultimately spontaneity, was an unusual departure from the norm of a concert pianist having a fixed recital programme that is played to death within a given season.

It also harked back to the halcyon era of great pianists (the likes of Anton Rubinstein, Josef Hofmann and Rachmaninov come to mind) who had such wide repertoires that the entire length, breadth and depth of piano literature is explored over a series of evenings. As it turned out, the audience voted out the austere Richter recital, favouring instead programmes inspired by Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Spooner’s own arrangements.

Thus a Chopin group opened the evening, with a Polonaise, four Mazurkas, a Waltz and the Second Scherzo, all exhibiting a sensitive ear for gradations of sonority, and an intuitive feeling of rubato. For the Polish dances, the lilt was delicious, lingering ever so slightly but not overdone. Outright virtuosity came to the fore in the Scherzo, but there was never a forced or ugly sound.

Three short works that Horowitz loved came next, first a delicate Scarlatti Sonata in D minor, Rachmaninov’s melancholic Prelude in G sharp minor and the lovely cantabile of Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Serenade. In the latter, the intimate voices became so intertwined in a tender love duet that was simply hard to resist.

Spooner then played two of his own Virtuoso Etudes, first an improvisation on My Funny Valentine in the manner of Keith Jarrett, followed by a Latino toccata that interpolated Scarlatti’s repeated notes with Ginastera’s cascading chords as if it were played by Spooner’s idol, the ageless Argentine Martha Argerich. The operative word here is “if”. 

The recital was so absorbing for both pianist and audience that the customary quarter-hour intermission was completely forgotten when Spooner offered to play requests. Most votes went to Liszt’s Thirteenth Hungarian Rhapsody with Horowitz’s elaborations, last heard here played by Arcadi Volodos in 2005. If anything, Spooner displayed a greater sense of freedom in the slow lassu introduction, and more than matched the regaled Russian in the furiously fast friss to close. 

Then there were calls for Liszt’s B minor Sonata and the hymn Amazing Grace. Amazingly, Spooner played the descending G minor octave scales that open the 30-minute long Sonata. Settling comfortably in G major, the famous John Newton hymn later emerged from the mist and was subjected to the full gospel treatment. That cunning little act of “preluding”, a practice of old and now almost forgotten, lives again!   

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