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!