PianoSummer at SUNY New Paltz presented solo recitals by two visiting pianists in the past two weeks: Alexander Melnikov on July 21, followed by Jeremy Denk on the 28th. Melnikov also gave a master class on the 19th, distinguished for his clarity and honesty. Both pianists played with tonal richness and variety that are uncommon in contemporary pianists, and I enjoyed them both for that reason. However, I had a definite preference for Denk. Melnikov is a superb player of the piano and has a lot of good musical ideas, especially as demonstrated in Brahms’s “Fantasien,” Op. 116. But he hears opportunities for rhythmic flexibility where I don’t find them appropriate. This was true in the first and last movements of Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy. Rubato (bending time) is often appropriate in Schubert, but not when it disrupts the momentum of this first movement or of the fugal finale. And while Melnikov can handle the great technical demands of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata, this is sprawling, expansive music that needs a firm hand on its rhythms to keep it together. Melnikov’s playing sometimes sounded like dramatic but disconnected effects. This was still fine playing, but for me it paled before the exceptional recital Denk gave us. He wound up changing most of the printed program but what we got was truly special. György Ligeti’s Etudes are tremendous challenges. Denk played Book 1 and two from Book 2 with security and amazing dexterity, so much inside the music that he made the pieces sound accessible and beautiful. “Autumn in Warsaw” was truly heartbreaking. Not even Denk can make Liszt’s “Dante Sonata” attractive to me — I find it impossibly bombastic — but he came as close as anyone has. His playing of Brahms’s 6 Piano Pieces, Op. 118, was beautifully relaxed and tonally gratifying. Book 1 of Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” succeeded in meeting all the technical challenges, but Denk still played it for the music. This was the first time I have heard this pianist in person, and I can easily understand what all the fuss is about.
PianoSummer concludes Friday evening, August 3, at McKenna Theatre, SUNY New Paltz. Vladimir Feltsman conducts the Hudson Valley Philharmonic in Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, works of Beethoven and Ives, and the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the winner of the 2012 Flier Competition, 19-year-old Hidemi Minagawa. Check www.newpaltz.edu/piano for ticket availability.
At Maverick Concerts, on July 22, the Leipzig String Quartet also had major program changes. Instead of Franck’s String Quartet and Beethoven’s Op. 135, the ensemble played two other Beethoven Quartets, Op. 18 No. 3 and Op. 95. That was OK with me. I’d come to hear this outstanding quartet play almost anything. The early Beethoven had outstandingly sweet sound, a characteristic of the LSQ, and a refined approach that retained Beethoven’s vitality. I loved the music box quality of the second movement. The playing of Op. 95 sounded a little mild to me, but since a couple of yuppie jerks had stolen my seats inside the hall (ignoring the programs I left on them) and the hall was full, I had to listen from outside where everything sounds milder anyway. Nothing vitiated the deeply affecting playing of the second movement, though. The only survivor of the original program, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in D, Op. 44, No. 1, was played with fine balance and a lightness of touch which still left the music feeling substantial. Another outstanding performance from this quartet! It drew the largest audience of the season so far.
Cellist Zuill Bailey is a Maverick favorite who always plays well and also drew a good audience on July 29. I had a few dissatisfactions with his performance, though. It was certainly appropriate to play Bach’s Suite No. 2 for unaccompanied cello in a program dedicated to the late Edgar Villchur, since those Bach Suites were among Eddie’s favorite music. And Bailey has the chops to play this extremely difficult music. But his Bach style isn’t what I prefer, with flexible rhythms where I want to hear them steady, repeats of first sections only (Bach marked both sections of each movement to be repeated), and verbatim repeats where proper baroque style wants to hear some added ornamentation. Good playing but not entirely satisfying.