Two Pianists Offer Contrasting Paths of Exploration

(Critic’s Notebook)

Two Pianists Offer Contrasting Paths of Exploration

NEW YORK — Classical music is overly beholden to traditional concert formats and standard repertory. So it’s important, and often exciting, for artists to be adventurous. There are different ways to do so, as two pianists demonstrated in completely contrasting programs this week in New York.

On Tuesday at Carnegie Hall, the brilliant Marc-André Hamelin, who is also a composer, devoted the first half of a recital to rarely heard works by three Russian composers — Scriabin, Prokofiev and Samuil Feinberg — written between 1900 and 1917.

The program that Paul Lewis presented Thursday at the 92nd Street Y may seem unadventurous at first: a Haydn sonata, three late Brahms intermezzos and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations. For years, with intrepid determination, Lewis has been on a personal exploration of the central works of the Classical period, performing and recording Beethoven’s complete sonatas and concertos, as well as major works of Schubert, Haydn and Mozart. So, Lewis offers his thoughtful immersion in a crucial swatch of repertory as an adventure, a journey. Still, by identifying so closely with these core works, Lewis puts pressure on himself to come up with something fresh to say. He usually delivers, as he did on this night.

Of the two programs, though, Hamelin’s rescue job of early 20th-century Russian piano works has lingered with me. Scriabin’s Fantasy in B minor, true to its title, is a fantastical piece that audaciously shifts from episodes of milky, harmonically murky lyricism to unhinged bursts of incandescent runs. Prokofiev’s “Sarcasms” is also accurately titled: its five pieces abound in bitingly comic passages, pounding chords and perpetual-motion craziness. That Hamelin played both works with technical dazzle and wondrous subtleties made the music seem even wilder.

Feinberg, who died in 1962 after 40 years as a professor of piano at the Moscow Conservatory, is only lately coming to attention as a composer. His visionary Sonata No. 3 (1916-17) begins with a long, roiling movement that seems to unfold mercurially. The second movement, marked “lugubrious and sad,” is thick with ruminative melodic lines and heaving harmonies. The compact finale is a manic, dense and fiendishly difficult Allegro Appassionato. Hamelin conveyed its craziness while playing with scintillating colors and stress-free virtuosity.

After intermission came Schubert’s late Sonata in B-flat. So, after a trip to the Russian wild side, was he settling into a sublime classic? But there was nothing safe about the probing and eloquent performance he gave. Here was Schubert entering mystical realms, while poignantly drawing upon a heritage of Viennese song and dance.

Lewis began his recital with an articulate, sensitive account of Haydn’s dark Sonata No. 34 in E minor. In Brahms’s Three Intermezzi (Op. 117), he took some interpretive gambles that proved rewarding, especially the spacious tempo he opted for in the lapping, elusive Intermezzo in B-flat minor.

In the nearly hourlong “Diabelli” Variations, Beethoven takes a dumpy waltz tune by the publisher Diabelli and explores its musical facets and possibilities, resulting in a colossal, idiosyncratic set of 33 variations. The music can be impish and audacious, sometimes at once. Lewis captured these contradictions while conveying its coherence.

He risks becoming stuck in the repertory lane he has chosen, however wide it may be. Still, he plays beautifully and has found an audience of music lovers happy to join him on his journey.

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