Pianist Carlo Grante in Review
Carlo Grante, Pianist
Masters of High Romanticism, Program III: Johannes Brahms
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
February 10, 2015
The sheer bravery of structuring a recital devoted wholly to Brahms and his many themes and variations was enough to earn my respect for Carlo Grante even before he sat down at the Bösendorfer piano. His detailed and cogent program notes revealed a musician of intellect, erudition, and passion for the composer and the compositional process. His playing, borne of courage and intelligence, supported my initial impressions, though the execution of his ideas was not consistently polished.
What is immediately apparent from Mr. Grante’s playing is his facility in surmounting every type of pianistic challenge. His technique is a big one, characterized by a massive sound and an unusually extreme dynamic spectrum. For the most part, though not always, this worked to his advantage. It may have been due to the acoustics of Alice Tully Hall, or simply a misjudgment in pedaling, but much of the left hand bass figuration in forte and fortissimo passages did not always read cleanly- but that is a small matter in the context of a program marked by such high ambition.
Brahms’s Variations on a Hungarian Song, Op. 21, No. 2, though it contains the least permutations of the four works on this program, is still dense with invention in its comparatively short span. Mr. Grante’s performance of this early work proved to be a template for the rest of the evening. The theme was stated briskly and forcefully, and the variations seemed almost freely improvised, as if an incidental detail of one provided the impetus for the next. Without so much as a brief departure from the stage, the pianist then launched into both books of the Paganini Variations, Op. 35. By this point in the recital, I was convinced of his enormous strengths and puzzling inconsistencies. Some variations, such as the third and fourth of Book I, and the tender waltz variation of Book II, were voiced and balanced exquisitely. Others were dispatched with less care, both rhythmically and coloristically. His strongest playing came in the finale of the second book, driven by a powerful left hand, and brilliant pacing.
With the amount of material to memorize in this daunting survey, it is no surprise that the pianist chose to play both the Variations on a Theme of Schumann in F-sharp minor, Op. 9, and Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op. 24, using the score. Oddly though, the presence of the printed page did not always allow Mr. Grante the sense of security he may have anticipated. In fact, the more difficult passages (which require much practice) were often more confidently rendered than the slower, lyrical music, which seemed tentatively played as if it were truly being read.
Of all the works in this concert, the Schumann Variations, because of their fragility and quirkiness, require the most care. This care was evident in Mr. Grante’s rendering of the theme, with its woodwind chorale voicing, and also in two pristine variations, the fourth and fifth, in which dynamics and tone were perfectly calibrated. Elsewhere in this piece, and in the Handel Variations, which followed, there were frequent miscalculations in attack and pedaling. Forte passages often sounded forced, while softer music lacked depth and solidity. Despite all this, the pianist ended the evening strongly, delivering the Handel fugue with remarkable clarity and aplomb.
Mr. Grante is an artist of abundant gifts. In his effort to share with the audience his knowledge and affection for this music, he set goals that were unattainable in one concert. I look forward to hearing him under better circumstances in future recitals.