Saturday, March 27, 2010

Music review: Early Brahms sparkles under young pianist's fingers

Pianist Ran Jia.

By Greg Stepanich

The piano sonatas of Johannes Brahms are all early, thickly scored, finger-busting works, and while they receive respect from the performers who study them, rare is the pianist who brings them along on recital.

The young Chinese pianist Ran Jia was an exception to that rule last Wednesday at Stage West in the Duncan Theatre, ending her meat-and-potatoes recital of Beethoven, Schubert and Ravel with the first of the three Brahms sonatas: his Op. 1, in C major.

Jia, who is 21 and the daughter of a prominent Shanghai academic and composer, currently lives in Philadelphia, where she studies with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music. She is a fine musician already, one with a large technique and something to say interpretively.

The youthful Brahms thought big, and the First Sonata is full of expansive gestures, huge chords and driving rhythms. It makes a strong impression, and Jia supplied all the power, intensity and volume it needs.

But she also supplied taste, when this noisy sonata allowed. In the first movement, she made much of the Schubert-style contrasting melody and gave the canonic passages that follow the opening an admirable clarity, all the while hitting the far reaches of Brahms’ keyboard writing with great accuracy.

Her second movement Minnelied was clear and forceful rather than hushed at the opening, and its major-key elaboration was tender and lovely. Jia handled the awkwardly written Scherzo with aplomb as well, managing both times in its closing bars to hit the octave-to-falling-thirds leaps that can turn this passage into a mess if they’re missed.

She took the Finale very rapidly, rattling off its repeated double thirds with precision, a considerable feat. This movement in general showed her reading of Brahms at its best: fingers that were nimble yet strong enough to get the composer’s orchestral effects across, and an interpretation with enough warmth to bring out the charm of its contrasting themes. It was a persuasive performance of this ungratefully written sonata, so much so that she almost made it sound easy.

Before the Brahms came the Jeux d’eau of Ravel, in which Jia made a good case for her French music chops. The waves of water were expertly played, and in her left hand she brought out the melodic fragments with rhythmic tension, which gave the piece form and structure and kept it from turning into an indistinct wash of sound.

Jia opened her concert with the Sonata No. 27 (in E minor, Op. 90) of Beethoven, a two-movement, semi-experimental piece (though I’ve always suspected that the composer just left it that way after never getting around to writing a finale). It certainly cries out for a concluding movement, especially in the hands of a pianist like Jia, who is able to convey a good sense of dramatic arc.

Her first movement was full of drama, with a tense opening and then a main theme in which she stretched out the tempo for maximum emotional effect. She was also adept at this movement’s many changes of mood and pace, getting across its emotional highs and lows without overdoing

Jia took the pretty Rondo second movement at a swift clip, avoiding sentimentality while at the same time producing good singing tone for its melody. She took more liberties with the tempo here, too, slowing way down for the second theme before returning to the Rondo. I don’t think this approach worked all that well, as it pulled the music out of shape a bit, adding a stop-and-start feel.

She followed the Beethoven with the Drei Klavierstücke (D. 946) of Schubert, starting the set off with a violent, speedy take on the E-flat minor first piece. Again, her fine sense of structure served her well in No. 2 (in E-flat), with its beautiful main theme, played here with poise, and a nice sense of mystery in the way she played the murmuring figure that presages the lengthy disquisition to come.

In the C major third piece, she gave the syncopations plenty of muscle in a rendition that stressed athleticism over wit. These late Schubert impromptus are less well-known than the Op. 90 and 142 sets, and Jia had the right feeling for their spontaneity overall, and the sonata-style narrative line of No. 2 in particular.

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