Aleyson Scopel, Pianist in Review

Aleyson Scopel, Pianist in Review
MidAmerica Productions Presents: Aleyson Scopel, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 23, 2013

MidAmerica Productions has a long history of presenting talented artists in venues around the globe. The honor of the 1200th concert worldwide was given to the Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel in a program featuring Mozart, Schubert, and his countryman, Almeida Prado. Mr. Scopel dedicated his performance “To Alys Terrien-Queen, the first to believe in me.”  Terrien-Queen may have been the first believer, but after this performance, he added countless others, including this listener, as those “in the know.”

Opening with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Mr. Scopel demonstrated his mature understanding of this highly introspective and melancholy work.  He played with refinement and sensitivity, but without superficiality or glibness that lesser players sometimes display in Mozart.  His control was excellent, the voicing clear, and contrasts rendered decisively. His was the playing of an artist, pure and simple.

The world premiere of Cartes Celestes XV (Celestial Charts XV) by Almeida Prado followed the Mozart. José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado (1943-2010) composed eighteen sets of pieces he called Cartes Celestes , works depicting the sky and universe, using a harmonic language the composer called “transtonality.”  Cartes Celestes XV was finished in 2009 and dedicated to Aleyson Scopel.   Subtitled “The Expanding Universe”, it is divided into six movements. The opening GRB090423, a musical depiction of a supernova 13 billion light years from the earth, was played by Mr. Scopel with harrowing effect, from the rumbling of the unstable stars to the brilliant explosion of light. The other movements (Eskimo Nebula, Pictor Constellation and Extrasolar Planet, The Bird of Paradise Constellation, Planetary Nebula NCG 3195, and Solar Wind) were further examples of the genius of this composer and his visionary conceptions.  Almeida Prado pays tribute to his teacher Messiaen in Bird of Paradise. One can also detect some intergalactic Debussy (imagine La cathédrale engloutie in outer space!). The use of tonality without a tonal center, which the composer called his “pilgrim harmony”, was highly effective. Mr. Scopel took the listener on a tour of the stars in a spellbinding performance full of power, passion, and lyricism. After he had finished, Mr Scopel pointed to the sky in tribute to the composer. It was a touching gesture, and I am confident that Almeida Prado was listening with joy from somewhere in the vast universe he loved so much. Given that Mr. Scopel has recorded other of the Cartas Celestes, it is a reasonable hope that he will, at the very least, add this set to the mix, but I would very much like to see him record all eighteen Cartas Celestes. It would do honor to both Mr. Scopel and Almeida Prado.

After intermission, Mr. Scopel offered Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959. This Sonata, completed only months before Schubert’s death, is a monumental work that is majestic, pathos filled, and nostalgic (especially in the finale’s look back to a theme from his Sonata in A minor, D. 537). Mr. Scopel continued to share his artistry with a well-considered and executed performance of this massive work.  His playing was crisp and accurate. The contrasting moods were dynamically realized, the laments were moving in their simplicity, and the finale had unflagging energy. One must also contend with the virtuosic elements throughout, and Mr. Scopel was more than capable of dealing with those as well, which he did in an unpretentious and understated way.  This was fine Schubert playing, and would have served as an excellent example to students on what constitutes a reference performance.

Aleyson Scopel is a first-rate pianist. Anyone who values substance over style should make it a point to hear him in performance.  I look forward to hearing him again.

Kyung-Hye Baek in Review

 Kyung-Hye Baek, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York
October 15, 2012 
Kyung-Hye Baek

Kyung-Hye Baek


If musical career-building were analogous to cooking, Kyung-Hye Baek might be said to have “the recipe.” Among the sought-after ingredients these days – conservatory studies (a doctorate from Peabody), the requisite recital and orchestral performances (various appearances in Korea, the U.S., and Europe), a sprinkling of competition prizes (the Daegu Music Association and others), and the cherry on top of a Weill Hall New York debut – all of these are now counted among her credits. Throw in an elegant stage presence, and the table might seem to be set; what remains to be seen, however, is the extent of her musical passion and where it will take her and her audiences.

The musical menu on Ms. Baek’s recent Weill Hall recital, while varied, consisted of mainstays of the piano repertoire: two Scarlatti Sonatas (the perennially popular B Minor K. 27 and D minor, K. 141), Haydn’s buoyant Sonata in G Major, Hob. XVI: 40, Beethoven’s stormy Sonata Op. 57 (the “Appassionata”), a set of lyrical Schubert-Liszt songs, and Prokofiev’s thorny Sonata No. 6. On paper, this seemed a program of huge range, as one is accustomed to large differences of sound and approach from one style to the next, but the end result in Ms. Baek’s hands was somewhat more homogeneous than one expected, with all works characterized by a similar glossy polish. Each piece was played with secure memory, reliable fingers, and a sound that was never strident. At climaxes, Ms. Baek did use the bass resonance of the hall’s Steinway to good advantage (if sometimes overwhelming the treble in the Scarlatti and Beethoven), but one could have enjoyed a larger dynamic range.

Among some high points were some excellent repeated notes, as heard in the Scarlatti D Minor Sonata, aka the “Toccata,” and also in the Haydn. Ms. Baek never overdid the Haydn’s inherent humor, but let the structural “punch lines” speak for themselves.  One wanted more contrast at times, but the Presto was full of drive and momentum, if occasionally a bit too hectic for this listener.

Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata was performed rather conservatively, missing some of its usual fire, but in terms of neatness and care, it lacked for little. One sometimes wonders whether proliferating doctoral piano programs might not be prolonging the sort of “defensive playing” that stems from extra years of jury exams and evaluations, shielding young players from the excitement of “going for broke” before live audiences. At any rate, if one is offering chiefly mainstream repertoire, there is additional reason to try to bring it a new dimension interpretively. These new dimensions may come with time and freedom from academic boundaries. Meanwhile, the pianist has a more than solid grounding and tremendous untapped potential.

Ms. Baek showed fine discipline in the voicing of her Schubert-Liszt, playing Ständchen, Gretchen am Spinnrade, Aufenthalt, and Auf dem Wasser zu singen, and these were also highlights.  She showed a good deal of patience and maturity in her weaving of melodic lines and created a lovely silken sound. One wonders whether there might be Schubert Sonatas and chamber music in Ms. Baek’s future, judging by the lyricism in which she seems so at home.

The evening closed with the first of Prokofiev’s “War Sonatas” -given a refined performance – too refined, in fact, for this listener’s taste. An angry and craggy piece, it usually evokes more in the way of outbursts, but Ms. Baek stressed its cerebral aspects. Though this listener wanted more, the work did close with strength. Warm applause elicited an encore of “October” from “The Seasons” by Tchaikovsky.

Evelina Puzaite, Pianist in Review

 Evelina Puzaite, Pianist in Review
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 1, 2012
Evelina Puzaite

Evelina Puzaite

Evelina Puzaite is a young Lithuanian-born pianist currently based in London and winner of various distinctions and prizes including the Rubinstein Piano Competition in Paris (First Prize). She has recorded for Landor Records in the UK and has performed widely in recital, chamber music, and with orchestra; she is not, however a run-of-the-mill contest pianist. Her biography lists that she is also a published composer (and winner of the Grodno composition contest) as well as a writer of short stories (having had her first book published in 2008). It is always exciting to see this sort of multi-faceted artist – bringing to mind Lera Auerbach and an elite group of others – as that extra dimension can lead to memorable performances.

Ms. Puzaite’s New York Debut was indeed memorable, and the interesting programming was a large part of it. Aside from Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Liszt, much of her program consisted of rarely heard works. She opened with Three Preludes by Ciurlionis (1875-1911), the Lithuanian painter and composer, and it was a refreshing adventure off the beaten path. The first Prelude, while reminiscent of Scriabin, showed an original voice, while the second one, sharply rhythmic and dissonant, reflected more folk influence. Perhaps most interesting was the third, of dreamlike shifting harmonies and timbres, very sensitively rendered by Ms. Puzaite.

Moving to better-known repertoire, the pianist gave an excellent account of Rachmaninoff’s “Six Moments Musicaux”, Op. 16. The first of these gems, the soulful B-flat Minor Andantino, had much to offer in this pianist’s hands, including some delicate voicing and finely woven filigree. One loved the freedom in Ms. Puzaite’s playing, though occasionally the license seemed a bit much, obscuring some distinctive changes in meter; through generous bending, a 7/4 measure sounded like 8/4, and a 5/4 bar sounded like 6/4, basically squaring off Rachmaninoff’s beautiful irregularities. Such liberties enhanced other pieces in the set, though, and the Allegretto in E-flat minor shimmered; Puzaite played in the original version, not the 1940 revision, which I actually prefer, but I enjoyed it. The Andante Cantabile in B Minor had breathed pathos, while never losing melodic direction as it easily can; some dynamic liberties were again well planned to help add focus and shape to the musical meditation, and some creative articulations heightened the conception. The fourth piece, the Presto in E Minor was brilliant, using to maximum effect the resonant Weill Hall Steinway, and the fifth, Adagio Sostenuto in D-flat Major, was lovingly shaped and expressed (though one wanted perhaps less bass here). The final Maestoso was a tad underplayed, explaining perhaps why Ms. Puzaite chose not end the first half with it as one might expect; it seemed she was trying more for lyricism and judicious pacing, but one missed some of the heroic feeling.

A quiet breather came next with “White Scenery” from the piano cycle “The Seasons” by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (b.1946). It is a mesmerizing and moving work, with minimalist elements, gentle chord clusters, liberal pedal, and a doleful long-breathed melody suggesting infinite absence. The Prokofiev Toccata rallied the energies back for the most virtuosic playing of the evening. It was a clean, sterling performance, with plenty of power, suggesting that any holding back in earlier works was probably perfectly intentional.

Ms. Puzaite introduced her own Piano Sonata in C Major (1999) to open the second half. Judging by the year of composition, this compact sonata must have been an extremely youthful endeavor, but it reveals a musician of tremendous versatility and pianism. A circus-like profusion of sounds emerged, from repeated fifths and motoric syncopations to music box effects and flirtatious slides (think Bartok and Rebikoff dancing to Carmen’s Habanera). It is always a joy to hear a pianist play his own work, and this was a refreshing novelty.

Liszt’s “La Leggierezza” and “Un Sospiro” were a break to Romanticism before Kodály’s “Dances of Marosszek” closed the evening. The Kodály is an exciting work, better known as an orchestral piece than in its original piano scoring. I’d previously preferred the second version, but with the enormous contrast and energy that Ms. Puzaite gave, it possibly surpassed the color of a typical orchestral performance! It was a rousing close to a scintillating evening. Rhythmic applause was acknowledged with an encore of the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B Minor.

Luisa Sereina Splett pianist in Review

Luisa Sereina Splett pianist in Review
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
May 26, 2011

For a promising pianist in her twenties making her springtime debut at Weill Hall, Luisa Splett chose a program that was surprisingly autumnal. Opening with one of this reviewer’s personal favorites, Medtner’s quietly haunting “Sonata Reminiscenza” (from Op. 38 “Forgotten Melodies”), Ms. Splett played with a delicate, measured sound and a cerebral restraint that allowed the composition to reveal its own wistfulness, as if she were simply hearing it from afar. Showing minimal physical movement or romantic liberty and taking barely a nanosecond of rhythmic license, she might have elicited an initial description of being cold or mechanical, but by the end she had conveyed the piece with the purity of a still life painting, an artwork in which the beholder needs to take an active interpretive role with no predigesting or pandering. A strict adherence to each beat, which might also have seemed wooden at first, convinced me by the end that it enhanced the piece, evoking loss and the passage of time, as the work’s title and message suggest. The tone throughout was beautiful, thoughtfully prepared and mellow, though I did want more range at times. It was ultimately an unusual and moving performance, ending with a sense of surrender that was extremely poignant. It would be tedious to enumerate the skills, years of study, and international concerts that helped hone this performance, but suffice it to say that Ms. Splett had an early start, having been born to a family of musicians in Switzerland, and that she studied in Chile and Russia, where she is now preparing to defend a doctoral dissertation on the work of pianist/composer Emil Frey.

More retrospective and introspective music followed, namely the oft-ignored Ninth Sonata of Prokofiev, the last one he completed, around six years before he died. After the violent, biting, and sorrowful qualities of Prokofiev’s “War Sonatas,” the Ninth Sonata (Op. 103 in C Major) stands in complete contrast as a work of serenely narrative quality and less overt drama. Relative to the pyrotechnics in the earlier sonatas, it is far subtler in its demands on the pianist, though requiring imagination throughout, especially in its wittier moments. For this reason, one at times one wanted more contrast and projection from Ms. Splett, but her polish, as seen in the Medtner, was again outstanding. She showed such meticulous attention to the score that a keen, trained listener could probably take dictation from her performance and reproduce the exact score. This quality, along with choice of repertoire, may not easily gain the adulation of lazy or impatient audiences, but it should win the attention of purists and sincere musicians.

Schubert’s mature and meditative B-flat Sonata formed the second half of the program, another “last” of genre, composed in the final year of Schubert’s life. Ms. Splett handled it with what was starting to emerge as her signature serene polish, while also allowing the listener to plumb its depths in its darker moments. It was a fitting close to a unique and beautiful recital.

Once again, it is hard not to comment on how unusual it is for a pianist in the early years of a career to unify a program with what amounts to a theme of looking back in reflection. Understandably, many pianists play debuts that announce, “Here I come!” in displays of brilliance and drama designed to counter an attention deficit, but Ms. Splett is simply not one of them. It is not that she played it “safe” with her choices, as pianists who play these works well know, but that she simply put her program conception first, with intelligence, integrity and the perspective of an old soul. It was a memorable evening from a dedicated artist.

Quentin Kim in Review

Quentin Kim in Review
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 1, 2011

Virtuoso pianists who perform their own works are part of a time-honored tradition, and in this bicentennial year of Liszt (not long after anniversaries of Schumann and Chopin) we are reminded of this fact. Among the new generation in this category, Quentin Kim (b. 1976) is undoubtedly among the standouts. A recital of works by Beethoven, Schumann, and Mr. Kim himself was a memorable and inspiring occasion. In reading Mr. Kim’s program notes, I was struck by his boldness in describing his own musical views in such a way that many colleagues might easily be offended. Starting with a quote by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, currently Pope Benedict XVI, describing “modern so-called ‘classical’ music” as becoming “an elitist ghetto”, Mr. Kim ended his notes with a paean to “beautiful forms, beautiful sounds, beautiful colours” as a connection to Alfred Douglas’ “Supreme Beauty”. One needn’t agree with Mr. Kim’s philosophy to sense how he expresses in words a passion that translates into communicative compositions and committed performances of all that he plays. Whether or not one can embrace the 19th century-inspired tonal and stylistic aesthetic that permeates Mr. Kim’s own Sonata in G-sharp Minor—which bears strong kinship to Schumann—his sincerity is palpable. Amid the obfuscation one often finds in descriptions of new works (and sometimes in the works themselves), Mr. Kim’s writing, like his playing, is refreshingly direct. The listener was invited into the music every step of the way.

Along with elements of Schumann (inevitable, perhaps, for a pianist who has been so immersed in that composer), Mr. Kim’s Sonata showed hints of Scriabin, underscored by some colorful titles of movements such as “Resigning Sun” and “Shooting Star.” One expects that a thoughtful musician such as Mr. Kim will be led by his own words and excellent imagination into an even wider harmonic and textural range over time.

If it can be said that Mr. Kim composes like a pianist, it is certain that he performs like a composer—one with unusually fine pianistic gifts.  His complete grasp of the inner workings made the opening half, Schumann’s Sonata, Op. 11 in F-sharp minor, a marvel of shape, phrasing, and articulation, each harmonic nuance being expressed as if he himself had composed the work. Matching the intellectual, emotional, and digital range was a stunning conception of sound, especially in the slow movement, but also evident in the fourth. If the Aria had had a tone any headier or more sensuous, it would need to be treated as a controlled substance. Strangely this work has never been one of my favorites of Schumann’s, but I’ll need to rethink it. In this performance, it sounded completely new, modern in the best sense of the word, as if freshly created.

Closing the program was Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 57, in F minor (“Appassionata”). It was an excellent performance as well, though I’m perhaps partial to greater abandon in it and a bit more fullness of sound at times. After the rest of the demanding program, however, it was a feat for Mr. Kim to convey so much power.

The audience expressed their thanks and awe with an enthusiastic ovation, and was rewarded with a quiet encore of Bach’s beautiful Largo (Arioso) from BWV 1056. I will definitely look forward to hearing Mr. Kim again in both his compositions and performances.