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.