Hands and Feats

Photo: DECCA/Mary Robert
It was a week of pianists: top-dollar virtuosos at the Music Center, an early-music specialist at a "historic site," a new-music specialist at the County Museum, brains and brawn with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra at Glendale's Alex. If the results didn't fully define the state of piano performance at century's end, they at least afforded a glimpse of its variety.

Radu Lupu and Evgeny Kissin gave solo recitals at the Music Center. Lupu, a frequent visitor, drew a near-capacity crowd; Kissin, after a five-year absence, sold out the house to the rafters. Their points of origin are far apart: Lupu, the only Van Cliburn Competition gold medalist -- after 10 runnings of that quadrennial event -- to have actually gone on to a world-class career; Kissin, whose phenomenology includes the even more remarkable fact that he is, and surely will now remain, a competitional virgin. Their recitals here were major events beyond question: Lupu, in a stylistic sweep from the serene elegance of Ravel's immaculately gorgeous Sonatine to the murk and turbulence of Brahms' early F-minor Sonata (with a Brahms intermezzo, the single encore, that said far more in three minutes than had the sonata in 45); Kissin in a narrower, safer orbit around his all-Chopin program, with encores that may still be going on.

There was much to enjoy on both nights, and some to deplore. Lupu, with his customary 99 percent finger accuracy, raged demonically through the Brahms, dabbed exquisite glints of color over the Ravel and a Debussy group, tried without complete success to endow the three Gershwin Preludes with similar French accents, and a week later joined Salonen and the Philharmonic in a ravishing disquisition on Beethoven's C-minor Concerto. Kissin, with his customary 101 percent finger marksmanship, handsomely lit up the glistening surface of the Chopin Preludes, the "Funeral March" Sonata and a gathering of shorties, only occasionally suggesting that there might be more to this music than meets his fingertips. From both pianists I most happily remember the ghostly moments: Lupu in the magical passage with soft drumbeats after the cadenza in the first movement of the Beethoven, Kissin in the windswept final movement of the Chopin sonata.

Neither pianist, however, gave off any sign that they were enjoying my company as much as I was supposed to be enjoying theirs. The reason for preferring live concerts to recordings, after all, is the sense of communion. Radu Lupu pads onto the stage like a grizzly bear aroused too soon from hibernation, scowls at the audience, addresses the music, then scowls some more. Kissin wafts in like a stick figure, achieves a stiff bow with no facial expression, and acquits himself at the 88s with phenomenal technique that, from all appearances, gives him no particular pleasure. Is it too much to ask that a performer, given the prevailing cost of concert tickets, expend a little effort to make an audience feel welcome? My memories of great pianists -- the scholarly Schnabel, the exuberant Serkin père, the lordly Rubinstein, the grand lady Myra Hess, even Alfred Brendel with his terminal fidgets -- include more than just the notes they played; they include a couple of hours spent in the company of the human beings who produced those notes. Impressive as the notes were at last week's star-quality recitals, I still had the sense from both performers of automatons acting out recordings. For Kissin, who was hailed not so many years ago as the dazzling young savior of the piano, it is especially distressing to suspect that growth in artistic stature hasn't kept pace with his awesome fingers.

At the County Museum, the Houston-based pianist Sarah Rothenberg joined Amsterdam's Schoenberg Quartet in Anton Webern's cut-down version of Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony. Two nights later at one of those eye-and-ear-opening "Historic Sites" programs -- in the handsome but frigid Blossom Room at the Hollywood Roosevelt -- Harvard-based pianist Robert Levin joined the five string players of the New York Philomusica in the cut-down version of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto that Beethoven himself had helped fashion. In both cases the rewrites had been created to render the music portable for some specific occasion. All of Schoenberg's white-hot scoring for winds and brass had been transferred to the piano; all of Beethoven's subtle and gleaming wind scoring -- the countermelodies for oboe in the first movement, to cite one wondrous instance -- had been made gray when handed over to strings. The fact that these versions exist doesn't strike me as justification for exhuming them as repertory pieces, especially since in both cases the piano parts so overwhelm the strings as to violate any real chamber-music quality. At the County Museum, Rothenberg and the Schoenbergs separately performed Debussy most radiantly: a group of the Piano Préludes and the Opus 10 Quartet. At the Roosevelt, the Philomusica also offered a charming and sadly neglected Mendelssohn string quintet, and the justifiably neglected Clarinet Trio of Brahms, music from the opposite end of the composer's career from the aforementioned sonata, but no less dreary.

There was nothing at all dreary at the Chamber Orchestra's concert, which I heard in the repeat performance at the Alex -- certainly not the lively, mettlesome playing. Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion started it off, with Jeffrey Kahane and Jon Kimura Parker out front and with Wade Culbreath and Thomas Raney on hardware. At the end came Schumann's Piano Concerto, a work I have no hesitation in regarding as perfect, with Parker as soloist and Kahane back on his podium. In between there was Zoltán Kodály's Summer Evening, delectable and negligible. Schumann and Bartók made for an interesting comparison, especially at the end of a week of pianos: the one the apotheosis of the power of the instrument to woo the ear with soft serenading and skittish trickery; the other the clear and sweeping denial of that power, the celebration of piano-as-mechanism, complete with skyrockets.

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