A Gary Graffman Piano Recital

12.10.09
Music Web

By Patrick P.L. Lam

Mooredale Concerts, under the direction of Canadian pianist and teacher Anton Kuerti, has been part of the Toronto music community since its establishment in 1986. This innovative series seeks to stimulate and entertain the audience with themed concerts and a variety of repertoire which includes less well known pieces as well as old favourites. Another interesting feature of this series is the partnering of concert artists, with a short solo piece from a rising young musician and a full recital from the more experienced artist(s).

Opening this concert was Richmond Hill based harpist, Emily Belvedere. Emily is currently in her third year at the Glenn Gould School, studying with Judy Loman, one of Canada’s most acclaimed harpists. Emily’s teacher has described her as “one of the most talented students that I have had the pleasure to teach. She has a natural aptitude for the harp, is intelligent, creative and has innate musical taste. She has the ability to stir her audiences,” and she fully justifies her teacher’s praise.

The Variations on a Theme in Ancient Style, written by French-born composer Carlos Salzedo in 1910-1911, has long been a signature piece of harpist Yolanda Kondonassis. Emily delivered a distinctive interpretation of these Variations that readily distinguished her from her predecessors. She has a crystalline technique and an ease in merging lyrical and dissonant sounds that made one feel one was hearing the piece for the first time. As Salzedo’s prolific music-writing (particularly for the harp) married diverse musical customs transcending traditional aesthetic limits, this was more than appropriate.

The next artist featured in this recital certainly needed no formal introduction. The well-known pianist Gary Graffman, who is 81, had given this recital programme only 5 days previously in Beijing, just before his arrival in Toronto.

As an accomplished teacher, Professor Graffman’s frequent visits to Asia come as the result of his passion for Asian history, culture, and its people, and in many ways, this has helped him in the role of mentor to pianists such as Lio Kuok-wai, Wang Yuja, Wu Di, and Zhang Haochen. Professor Graffman himself is an accomplished pianist, specializing in the repertory for the left hand.

In this deceptively straight-forward recital programme, one could hear the qualities of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Piano-Playing’ – nimbleness, beautifully lucid finger-work and a sensitively-nuanced touch that projected a sustained quality of tone. This style of playing was once championed by Graffman’s predecessors such as Josef Hofmann, Erwin Nyíregyházi, Artur Rubinstein, and Graffman’s one time teacher, Vladimir Horowitz.

The recital was centered almost entirely on the lyrical repertoire for the left hand of the Romantics, including Reinecke, Brahms, Godowsky, Scriabin, Reger, and Blumenfeld. This concentration of compositions from Romantic composers reflected a period in music history when pianist-composers were starting to be interested in the human anatomy, the amalgamation of Music and Science, and the quest to experiment with the limits of the piano. The challenge of “writing music for five fingers which must sound as if it’s being played by ten,” as Prof. Graffman wrote in his programme notes, had certainly in part helped to bring in an age which encompassed new musical forms, harmonies and technical experiments. “Now the left hand,” wrote Prof. Graffman, “in coming to the fore, must learn to play (in addition to – and simultaneously with – its normal accompanying role) the melodic lines traditionally assigned to its counterpart.”

Scriabin’s two Opus 9 pieces, the Prelude in C Sharp Minor and the Nocturne in D Flat Major with which Prof. Graffman opened his recital, demonstrated the expressive creativity of a composer who suffered transiently from tendovaginitis. Although Scriabin’s music for both hands may arguably be more popular nowadays, these two works were among Scriabin’s (and coincidentally so, Graffman’s) regular war-horses. Through our pianist’s interpretation of these two pieces, and the transcription of the Scriabin’s Etude in C Sharp Minor by Philadelphian Jay Reise which followed, Graffman instantly established a link with his audience.

Whilst there were occasional technical problems for the pianist, Reinecke’s late composition the Piano Sonata Op.179 was a good example of the composer’s talent for melodic writing. Here, Graffman demonstrated how “singing, legato [and intricate] melodic playing can be undertaken by the left hand’s far clumsier thumb,” could sound so simple and natural, while from a visual point of view “the body is contorted into a most unnatural position when [the pianist’s] left hand performs its acrobatics far up in the treble of the keyboard.” This was apparent in this piece, as well as others that followed, as Graffman’s right hand was holding on to the far right of piano so as to sustain his posture.

The other highlight in this first half of the recital came with the arrangement of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita for Solo Violin. In this less well-known arrangement by Brahms, not only had the arranger successfully transcribed the challenging arpeggio and contrapuntal violin-playing to the requirements of the piano, but Brahms had made this an even more challenging feat for the pianist to achieve with the mere limits of his/her left hand alone.  Although Graffman’s performance might not have approached the sublime experience captured on record in 1948 by Michelangeli in London, our pianist‘s version was electrifying.

As four independent miniatures, Reger’s Four Special Studies presented great harmonic and technical challenges and Graffman shone particularly in the Romanze, the third of the four studies, where his singing tone reflected the poise and sensitivity of a master.

While the two rather technically-challenging contemporary works of Corigliano and Kirchner demonstrated finesse and dexterity, what struck the listener the most was the more somber interpretation of Blumenfeld’s Etude in A Flat Major. The Blumenfeld Etude might have given a greater contrast to Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne had it been placed at the beginning of this recital, but otherwise, the somber quality came out equally effectively under Graffman’s fingers.

Finally, Godowsky’s lifelong passion for Chopin cannot be better exemplified than in his famous Fifty-Three Studies after Chopin’s Etudes. The No.13 in E Flat Minor and the No.41 in B Minor, centered on Chopin’s original Etudes Op.10 No.6 and Op.25 No.12, respectively, and demonstrated Graffman’s unpretentious style of technique. Hearing Graffman present these Godowsky ‘miniatures,’ along with the rest of the recital, might have made one wonder why focus so much on the right, if the left hand alone can do so well?

Prof. Graffman announced his encore to be yet another arrangement, this time Paganini’s Caprice No.24 written especially for him by Sergei Slonimsky. It provided a witty finish to what was arguably a piano marathon. Despite the fact that this recital has been close to the heart for Prof. Graffman (and his audience) for many years, each time Graffman manages to trigger greater and greater admiration and affinity from both his new and familiar listeners alike. It leaves one begging the question of how Graffman manages to display such brilliance in music-making and such a myriad of sound with his left-hand alone, when others can’t manage as much using both.