HH Promotions London, LLC presents Carlo Grante, Pianist in Review

HH Promotions London, LLC presents Carlo Grante, Pianist in Review

HH Promotions London LLC presents Carlo Grante, Piano
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center New York, NY
September 15, 2015

It’s a World Premiere! With the same exhilaration that one feels in exclaiming “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” the world welcomes a new piano work, Chopin Dreams (2014), composed by Bruce Adolphe (b.1955) and given a masterful first performance this week by Italian pianist Carlo Grante. Commissioned by The Concert Artists’ Promotion Trust for Mr. Grante, the work is brimming with all the poetry and virtuosity one would hope for in a work inspired by the great Frédéric Chopin, but its tonal language is deliciously modern. As Mr. Adolphe writes, “To compose this work, I imagined Chopin alive today, living in New York, perhaps making some money at a jazz club rather than teaching so many students.”

Made up of six pieces, the work lasts around 24 minutes. The first of the set is New York Nocturne, a sensitive meditation through a melancholy jazz haze, as if Chopin’s sensibilities had been transported to a dusky New York scene. Mr. Grante captured the music’s improvisatory magic with exquisite colors and nuanced pianism.

The second piece of the set, Jazzurka, was even more captivating (if one may indulge in favorites), and if the composer allows the pieces to be performed individually, this one will surely take on legs of its own. From its opening, with delicate hints of Chopin’s A Minor Mazurka, Op. 17, No. 4, the most ingenious jazz development ensues. One can only guess how devotedly Mr. Grante must have lived and breathed this Chopin-Adolphe hybrid over the past year, but he truly brought it to life.

Brooklyn Ballad, the fourth of the set (containing material from Chopin’s G Minor Ballade), seems to tell an urban tale, as if a counterpart to one of Chopin’s poetic inspirations were channeled through Bill Evans. Again, Mr. Grante was outstanding.

The fifth piece, cleverly entitled Quaalude (a play on “Prelude” and using similar left hand passagework to that of Chopin’s G Major Prelude) was another tour de force, played brilliantly. The Chopin connection seemed tenuous in two dance forms which, as Adolphe notes, Chopin never heard of – hip-hop rhythms as heard in Piano Popping (the third piece) and the Hora as heard in the final (sixth) piece of that title – but these pieces are musical “dreams” after all. They livened things up well, and Mr. Grante played them with panache. The audience exploded into applause for both the pianist and the composer, who was present for bows.

As if all of this had not been enough of a draw for one evening, Mr. Grante presented, for the program’s second half, a string of virtuosic Studies on Chopin Etudes by Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938), selecting those based on Chopin’s Études Op. 10 and including four arranged for the left hand. Though the program had listed twelve of Godowsky’s 53 (1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 21, and 22), Mr. Grante wound up omitting Nos. 1 and 21. In any case, playing even ten of these is something of an Olympic trial for a pianist, and one could enjoy the thrill simply on that level. Pianophiles will inevitably recall performances that set the bar higher for this or that one (some of Marc-André Hamelin’s come to mind), but again, just how often does one hear so many in live performance?

Mr. Grante’s execution in the Godowsky had much to admire, as one has come to expect with this pianist, especially in the left hand technique. One reservation was that the resonant bass and middle registers sometimes interrupted or overwhelmed more delicate top voices, breaking lines, but much of this issue may have been due to quirks of the Bösendorfer piano and acoustics. In the pianist’s pursuit of extremely soft sounds, some tones vanished altogether, and as one issue affects the next, tempo and fluency occasionally sounded encumbered. As challenging as these pieces are, one wants to hear them sound like child’s play.

Despite such reservations, one’s focus in hearing the Godowsky was not so much in assessing the virtuosity as in wrapping one’s mind around the dazzling tonal world that grew from Chopin, from that of his own original compositions, to Godowsky’s early twentieth-century expansions, and to the newer musical explorations around them, by Bruce Adolphe and others. The programming itself urged such an appreciative listening approach, despite offering plenty of bait for the keyboard-centric. It was beautifully conceived.

The sole original Chopin work of the evening was the opener – Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 (the “Funeral March” Sonata). It has a long tradition of great performances and had much to praise here too, but again, whether due to acoustics, the piano, or a novel conception that just eluded this listener, some of work’s most singing lines felt disjointed or too thin in relation to basses. This was most noticeable in the slow movement, but it affected earlier movements as well. The imbalance somehow was not as distracting during the evening’s premiere (but then again, there is no basis for comparison with a new work).

On the plus side, Mr. Grante’s extremely soft pianissimos for ethereal effect succeeded in entrancing for prolonged spells the otherwise rather ill-behaved audience, who were leaving cellphones ringing, clapping between movements, and even drinking from a bottle in the front row! While Mr. Grante was quite gracious and acknowledged the applause at whatever points it came, it was still annoying to have the “afterglow” constantly interrupted. One was thankful that, upon the last notes of the heartbreaking Chopin slow movement, Mr. Grante overrode the stirrings of applause by launching straight into his last movement, the famous “wind over the graves” Finale. It was chillingly transparent in tone and a reminder of how vital and “new” to our ears Chopin can still be.

All in all, with minor quibbles aside, it was an extremely stimulating evening, just what a culturally spoiled New Yorker wants, and an auspicious start to the new concert season. Bravo!


Pianist Carlo Grante in Review

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.


HH Promotions London, LLC presents Carlo Grante in Review

HH Promotions London, LLC presents Carlo Grante in Review

HH Promotions London LLC presents Carlo Grante, Piano
Masters of High Romanticism – Concert II: Schumann – The Piano Sonatas,
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center New York, NY
December 15, 2014
 

Italian pianist Carlo Grante is a musician of superabundant gifts. Possessing a discography of over fifty CD recordings, he is much more than a recording artist, demonstrating such thorough pianistic mastery onstage that, if his concerts were recorded straight to disc, one would be hard pressed to think of a single spot to edit. He is unflappable in the face of tremendous technical, musical, and intellectual challenges, reminding this reviewer in many ways of Marc-André Hamelin, but with a mellower persona. While Mr. Grante’s weighty program of Schumann Piano Sonatas at Alice Tully Hall perhaps precluded glimpses of the lighter showmanship aspect of Mr. Hamelin, Mr. Grante’s prodigious skills are certainly comparable, and that says a lot.

Incidentally, these two pianists, in conjunction with their Godowsky recordings, were first linked in many minds with the exposure of the now infamous Joyce Hatto recording fraud in 2007, through which their work was appropriated. Though Ms. Hatto was described in the Boston Globe as “the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of,” she had in fact been wrongfully credited with recordings by numerous other pianists, including Mr. Grante and Mr. Hamelin. If turnabout is fair play, Mr. Grante could thus perhaps have been described as one of “the greatest living pianists that almost no one has ever heard of” – except that we have now heard of him, and for good reason, with a career that has been on quite a roll.

As part of a three-concert solo series entitled “Masters of High Romanticism” Mr. Grante brings to this Lincoln Center season the complete Ballades and Scherzi of Chopin (reviewed in this journal-Carlo Grante Review 10/31/14 ), his recent complete Piano Sonatas of Schumann, and, yet to come, Variations of Brahms (February 10, 2015- not to be missed). This series is no mean feat and is bookended by other concerts including fistfuls more of – you guessed it – Godowsky, plus more Chopin and a brand new work by Bruce Adolphe.

While expectations were quite high for this all-Schumann program, and the pianist was in flawless form, this reviewer will confess to a bit of a growing bias against “survey” programs, and this recital reinforced the feeling. While it was interesting to hear the three Sonatas in a row, Op. 11 in F-sharp minor from 1835, Op. 14 in F minor from 1836/1853, and the Op. 22 in G minor from 1833-38, binge listening does not seem the ideal way to experience these works. The idiosyncratic Schumann tends to undercut himself when heard in large quantities, especially when all is grappling within versions of Sonata form, so while it was a fascinating journey in the name of thoroughness and scholarship (reflected well in Mr. Grante’s own thoughtful program notes), one might have enjoyed more of the quirkiness, the intimacy, and the multiplicity that are so quintessentially Schumann, had one included one of the sets such as Kreisleriana or Davidsbündlertänze. Schumann did display manic swings in the Sonatas, but one missed much of the extremely free musical expressiveness that lives in so many of the composer’s other works. If this was to be a traversal of Schumann within the framework of “High Romanticism” perhaps the choice of sonatas from essentially one decade was not ideal. One craved more of the Florestan-Eusebius duality in Mr. Grante’s sane and cerebral renderings. Mr. Grante’s modest demeanor is refreshing for such a powerhouse, but he might have benefited at times from a more demonstrative approach. One eagerly awaits his Brahms on the basis of his tremendous control, effortless technique, and keen musical mind.

His Schumann was in each case, as mentioned before, immaculate, with no hint of technical strain in the large swaths of musical texture. Sections that often seem sprawling and unwieldy were kept well in hand. Mr. Grante recorded these works years ago, and the familiarity shows. A minor grievance was some excessive blurring, which may have been attributable to the acoustics in conjunction with the instrument.

The highest points artistically for me were in the F Minor and F-sharp minor Sonatas – especially the Aria movement of the latter. Oddly, though, the performance of the more accessible and popular G Minor Sonata will not linger in memory with as much luster. Perhaps, because it stands more easily on its own, it was left to do just that, with less energy in the projection. Its Andantino, which I consider a movement of great transcendental beauty, just missed being the dream that it can be. Of course, one’s preferences can grow rather set with a lifetime of hearing (and playing) such favorites.

All in all it was a fascinating evening, an unusual program from a fine pianist whom I hope to hear again soon.


HH Promotions London, LLC presents Carlo Grante in Review

HH Promotions London, LLC presents Carlo Grante in Review

HH Promotions London, LLC presents Carlo Grante, piano
“Masters of High Romanticism”- Concert I: Chopin-The Four Ballades, The Four Scherzi
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
October 31, 2014

The great pianist Alfred Cortot said of the Chopin Etudes that “they are as inaccessible to the technician without poetry as they are to the poet without technique.” The same could apply equally to all of Chopin’s works. Carlo Grante possesses both technique and poetry in formidable degrees. His daunting program consisted of two giant blocks of the repertoire, the four Ballades and the four Scherzi of Chopin. These works are so well-known that their themes have become part of the musical subconscious, so to speak. They are also routinely massacred by well-meaning pianists, both professional and amateur.

From the opening stark low C of the first Ballade, the audience sensed it was in the presence of total mastery and a personal vision for each phrase and each work as a whole. Color variety was abundant, reflecting the deep and dramatic emotional shifts that frequently turn from brooding to exultant in these lyrical narratives. At times, a daring and personal sense of rubato was applied, but always with a structural view, never distorting the total architecture. He didn’t play these works “the way you’ve always heard them,” thank goodness. After all, if you can’t be individual in works from the Romantic period, you are in the wrong business.

Pianist Carlo Grante. Photo Credit: Steve J. Sherman

Pianist Carlo Grante. Photo Credit: Steve J. Sherman

In his detailed and very intelligent program notes, Mr. Grante discusses the layers of accretion that have gathered on these works, and how a newer analytical sense has slowly gained ground, leading to more interpretive choices and greater coherence. I agree with his remarks, and also with his interpretations, and they are just that: interpretations. How refreshing to find such individuality combined with faithful adherence to the score. All this sounds very dry and technical—the result was anything but. Some ladies seated near me were grumbling that he didn’t “sing” enough (meaning ‘bring out the right hand’), the way they had been taught ages ago by their teachers, prior to their giving up lessons. I resisted the temptation to lecture them; to say that he was indeed singing all the principal lines.

People have tried to attach specific programmatic content to the Ballades for over a century-and-a-half, understandable given their literary title deriving from epic poetry, but Chopin himself never alluded to any such storytelling, preferring to do it exclusively through musical construction and scale. This we heard clearly in Mr. Grante’s lucid renditions. The Scherzo (Italian for “joke”) began as a rapid transformation of the Minuet movement in sonatas and symphonies. It has often been remarked that, except for the E Major, Chopin’s Scherzi are some of the “blackest jokes” ever, containing mostly fury instead of humor. Even so, Mr. Grante managed to find qualities of coquettish grace in passages that are usually banged or hurried through.

Mr. Grante’s fluid and rapid fingers absorbed Chopin’s use of the “little” notes, arabesques, filigree, and other ornamental strategies, creating delicious harmonic washes of sound surrounding melodies that are often in the left hand, the one most ignored by amateur pianists. He revealed the contrapuntal mastery of Chopin, one of whose idols was Bach, which is too often glossed over. Mr. Grante also had a great sense of forward propulsion, the result of his firm understanding of the music’s ultimate goal.

Mr. Grante is a Bösendorfer artist, and his choice of instrument ideally suits his strong qualities. The sound was melting and mellow, a sound jaded New York ears used to the brilliance of Steinway may not be accustomed to but should grow familiar with. There were even notes that I wasn’t sure I heard, so delicate was his approach to the keys in certain soft passages. However, this was due to his creating “in the moment” rather than parroting a rehearsed “plan” for each piece.

Mr. Grante’s stage manner is not theatrical. He simply proceeds to reveal the deep structure and feeling embodied in the notes. His phrase-end taperings were spectacular, vocal in nature, adding to the sense of poignancy and nostalgia. There was great strength in the “apotheosis” sections of each Ballade, with never a harsh tone. The Scherzi benefitted a great deal from Mr. Grante’s fluidity and organization; even with their many repetitions, they never felt long.

Two (very) minor quibbles: 1) At times, the ending cadential formulae of the Ballades seemed a bit perfunctory, considering the grand heroic narratives that had preceded them. 2) I would have enjoyed a presentation by opus number, thereby mixing Scherzi and Ballades.

The enthusiastic audience seemed to realize the great gift they were being given. This is no everyday event. Mr. Grante played the wistful Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 68 No.2, written when Chopin was only seventeen, as a ghostly, nostalgic encore, bringing just enough “fatal optimism” in the C Major modal sections.

There are two more evening planned by Mr. Grante in his series “Masters of High Romanticism,” Schumann sonatas, and Brahms variations. I advise lovers of the piano to go.