Monday, April 13, 2015

An Afternoon of "Might Have Been"...

Pianist Joseph Moog came to town yesterday to make his debut with a highly unusual but always interesting programme. The young artist has been making a name for himself for rediscovering rarities and gems from the early 20th century, virtuosic transcriptions as well as concerti by less-than-household names such as Scharwenka and Moszkoswki.

While there is nothing surprising for us to hear Beethoven’s popular Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique), the work has been appearing less regularly in piano recitals, mainly because artists have lately been gravitating toward the profundities of the later sonatas. It is easy for us to forget what an original and startling composition this sonata is – the extreme dynamic contrasts of the introduction, the stormy 1st and 3rd movements, as well as the heavenly slow movement, an early example of the “three-handed effect” (the right hand having to play both melody and accompaniment) so favoured by later composers (Chopin employs the exact same texture in his celebrated Etude in E Major, Op. 10, No. 3). While the work was extremely well played, the artist seemed to have been somehow inhibited, as if he was emotionally ambivalent about the music. I missed the contrast in sounds and colours called for in the outer movements, and even the beautiful slow movement was lacking in a sense of repose, of transcendence. One admires the pianism, but there was a curious lack of conviction in the music.

I had the same impression in Moog’s performance of Liszt’s Réminiscences de Norma. I admired the craft of piano playing in his performance, for it was extremely well played, but there was missing a sense of fun, of joy, of élan.

One almost never finds Chopin’s Sonata No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 4 in recital programmes. I had heard it once before in a recital by Lilya Zilberstein. It is a work that has much beauty and originality. What is missing is a sense of organic unity so evident in the later works of Chopin. It is remarkable that the composer’s Op. 6 and 7 Mazurkas, the Op. 9 Nocturnes, and the groundbreaking Op. 10 Etudes, are so far ahead of this sonata, in terms of both compositional skills and originality. Still, we must be grateful to Joseph Moog for performing this rarely heard work for us. I thought that his playing of the Larghetto movement, remarkable for its 5/4 time signature, was especially beautiful, the kind of beauty missing in the slow movement of the Beethoven.

Gabriel Fauré’s elusive Theme and Variations in C-sharp Minor, Op. 73, is also a rarity in piano recitals, probably partly because of its extreme difficulty and an inner beauty that is difficult to convey. It made perfect sense, as the pianist told us after his recital, to combine Chopin and Fauré in the same programme, for Fauré really is a spiritual descendent of Chopin. In spite of the pianist’s skill in navigating the many difficulties of the work, one misses the glow, the aforementioned inner beauty, of this music.

The recital ended with a blistering performance of Anton Rubinstein’s Fantasy on Hungarian Melodies, arranged by the pianist himself. Once again, I had the impression that the playing was incredible, but, as in the Liszt, there was missing a sense of élan, flamboyance, and flair.

Incredibly, all the things that were missing in the “planned” part of the recital, I found in the two encores - a transcription by 19th century virtuoso Carl Tausig of Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Minor, as well as a transcription of Charles Trenet's En Avril, a Paris by Bulgarian-French pianist Alexis Weissenberg. In these little gems, the pianist, to me, came alive, and was completely in his element. What was missing in the Liszt and Rubinstein, were there, in spades, in these two performances. There was also a charm, and a sense of joy in the playing of these two miniatures.

The Vancouver Recital Society website quoted a statement from the Denver Post, saying that, “This is a pianist with all the ingredients for a significant career.” Playing a solo recital is an act of courage that should be applauded. Joseph Moog does have a great deal of talent, and he is still at the beginning of his journey of discovering both the music and himself as a musician. I would like to hear this young pianist again in a few years, to see what time and experience would do for his music-making.