Phillip T Young Recital Hall
July 6, 2012
According to one contemporary account, at concerts given by Franz Liszt, "terrified pianos flee into every corner...gutted instruments strew the stage, and the audience sits mute with fear and amazement."
Times have changed and today's concertgoers tend to lap up the kind of virtuosity which once rendered them afraid and amazed.
The first half of Friday evening's recital by Roger Buksa and Anna Cal consisted of two of Liszt's most significant - and popular - works for keyboard.
The Piano Sonata in B minor is undoubtedly one of the great peaks of the literature; not Everest (that would almost certainly be the Hammerklavier) but K2 or perhaps Kangchenjunga. Its technical difficulties are such that it took almost seventy years to become part of the standard keyboard repertoire; musically, it is one of the earliest and greatest examples of the compression of the four traditional sonata movements into one continuous whole. The earliest example is Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy, a piece which Liszt admired to the extent of transcribing it for piano and orchestra; later examples include such diverse works as Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony and Sibelius's Seventh.
If I may continue the mountaineering analogy, Roger Buksa has clearly mapped out his route to the summit, which is within his view, but he still has a way to go to achieve that.
His conception of the music's structure was clear enough to keep his audience's attention for the half-hour span of this formidable work (no mean feat), and his concentration, aside from a brief memory lapse early on, most impressive. But his tempos tended to instability, particularly in the quicker, more challenging passages, and tone production was somewhat edgy, especially in the higher registers.
Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No.1 subtitled "The Dance at the Village Inn" exists in three version: for solo piano, two pianos and orchestra. It depicts a scene from Lenau's (not Goethe's) Faust.
In distinct contrast to the modern trend for virtuoso pianists to use the piece as a display for their own technique, Anna Cal adopted a more nuanced tempo, which may, initially, seem to have lacked excitement, but which paid dividends in terms of the musical argument.
Cal's excellent sense of rubato coupled with a fine tonal palette combined to produce a reading whose cumulative, demonic power was at least as thrilling as many a faster performance.
The second part of this joint recital moved into twentieth century France with music by Debussy and Ravel.
Cal's performance of Debussy's L'isle Joyeuse found a very different - and very Debussian - spectrum of tone colours and the work seemed over almost before it began.
Maurice Ravel famously (notoriously?) denied that La Valse was in any way a comment on the collapse of European civilisation in the second decade of the twentieth century. Most pianists and conductors - like Liszt's first Mephisto Waltz, La Valse exists in version for solo piano, two pianos, and orchestra - treat this claim as mere persiflage and refuse to take it at face value.
Whether it was a conscious artistic decision, or one enforced upon them, Buksa and Cal, almost uniquely in my experience, played the two-piano version "straight", with almost no rubato worth speaking of and no real sense of a doomed society fiddling while Rome burns.
Which is not to say that it was not well played, or that it lacked excitement. It did, though, for me underline the feeling that Ravel "doth protest too much" in his denials.
A most interesting evening.