Monday, June 7, 2010

Music review: Pianist Gilbert impressive in Chopin evening

Pianist Leonard Gilbert.

By Greg Stepanich

Unlike many younger musicians these days,‭ ‬Leonard Gilbert doesn‭’‬t go in for a lot of demonstrative behavior at the keyboard.

The‭ ‬19-year-old Canadian pianist,‭ ‬who recently won‭ ‬first place in‭ ‬his country‭’‬s Chopin Piano Competition,‭ ‬shows‭ ‬admirable form at the instrument,‭ ‬letting his fingers and arms do the bulk of the work as he plays.‭ ‬And as his recital Saturday night at the Broward County Main Library in Fort Lauderdale showed,‭ ‬that playing is of a high caliber,‭ ‬and the kind that excites an audience.

Gilbert‭’‬s all-Chopin program included a number of big works,‭ ‬chief among them the Scherzo No.‭ ‬1‭ (‬in B minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬20‭)‬,‭ ‬the Sonata No.‭ ‬3‭ (‬also in B minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬58‭)‬,‭ ‬and the Ballade No.‭ ‬4‭ (‬in F minor,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬52‭)‬.‭ ‬The celebrated Polonaise in A-flat‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬53‭) ‬was also included,‭ ‬along with three shorter works:‭ ‬two of the Op.‭ ‬25‭ ‬Études‭ (‬Nos.‭ ‬5‭ ‬in E minor and‭ ‬11‭ ‬in A minor‭) ‬and the popular Nocturne in D-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬27,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2.

In all of these pieces,‭ ‬Gilbert demonstrated a large and impressive technique,‭ ‬especially in the multiple passages of speedy,‭ ‬glittering runs,‭ ‬such as‭ ‬in‭ ‬the second movement of the Third Sonata.‭ ‬There was no audible sense of strain or struggle in bringing off these measures‭; ‬rather,‭ ‬it sounded as though Gilbert‭ ‬simply‭ ‬was‭ ‬taking another‭ ‬strand of well-formed pearls off an endless assembly line.

He also has a remarkably mature sound for someone still in his teens.‭ ‬Gilbert already is a pianist who knows how to create a persuasive deep mood,‭ ‬as he did most notably in the‭ ‬nocturne,‭ ‬which had a gentle,‭ ‬hushed,‭ ‬almost half-hearted quality that was very effective.

What he is not yet able to do,‭ ‬though this should come with time,‭ ‬is craft a unified long narrative.‭ ‬In‭ ‬all of‭ ‬the larger pieces Saturday night,‭ ‬the sections were too distinct from each other,‭ ‬and‭ ‬in addition‭ ‬there was a kind of rushed quality throughout the recital‭ ‬that at‭ ‬times took away Chopin‭’‬s subtler touches.

In the first movement of the sonata,‭ ‬for example,‭ ‬the main theme and secondary theme sounded like two different pieces,‭ ‬and while they are quite separate in character,‭ ‬they are part of a sonata form and they need to sound like they are part of the same line of reasoning.‭ ‬The same comment applies to the scherzo,‭ ‬which had a very clear,‭ ‬springy feel to the main section,‭ ‬but‭ ‬when it got to the Polish Christmas carol Chopin used for the middle section,‭ ‬Gilbert didn‭’‬t take enough time to set it up,‭ ‬slamming on his musical brakes before playing the carol.

In the‭ ‬polonaise,‭ ‬the second subject after the main theme didn‭’‬t‭ ‬have‭ ‬the‭ ‬kind of‭ ‬snap it needs as it goes through its swift harmonic rhythm,‭ ‬a rhythm whose periods are separated by that long glissando that ends in the high accented notes.‭ ‬Gilbert plowed through that passage with technical skill,‭ ‬but that run and its ending notes conclude that harmonic paragraph,‭ ‬and the break has to be clear and deliberate.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a musical palate-cleanser,‭ ‬and it has to be stressed so that the ear is ready for the next series of rapidly changing chords.

Perhaps that‭’‬s too‭ ‬nitpicky or technical,‭ ‬but it seems to me that these is the primary thing that Gilbert needs to work on next to become more than just the already excellent pianist he is.‭ ‬Chopin took great care with his transitional material,‭ ‬and if enough attention isn‭’‬t paid to exactly what‭’‬s going on there,‭ ‬the long line of the music‭’‬s argument won‭’‬t come through.‭ ‬Once that‭’‬s in place,‭ ‬he can concentrate on shaping the themes with more refinement,‭ ‬such as in the E major section of the E minor étude,‭ ‬which was too rushed‭ ‬Saturday night‭ ‬to be completely effective,‭ ‬particularly at the ends of phrases.

That said,‭ ‬there were many moments of‭ ‬really fine playing,‭ ‬such as the main theme of the sonata‭’‬s finale,‭ ‬which had color,‭ ‬strength and real bigness,‭ ‬and the ballade,‭ ‬which could have used more interpretive shading but otherwise had the kind of grit and fire that makes it epic.‭ ‬Overall,‭ ‬Gilbert‭’‬s best playing came in the‭ ‬nocturne,‭ ‬which was beautifully communicative from the first low bass notes to the simple cadence at the end.

As noted,‭ ‬Leonard Gilbert already is a formidable pianist at an early age.‭ ‬With his sheer command of the keyboard,‭ ‬in moments of virtuosity and those in which good tone color and expressiveness are at a premium,‭ ‬he has a good chance to build a strong career for himself.‭ ‬What he needs to do now is dig a little deeper into the music and understand‭ ‬more about it,‭ ‬so that it has its maximum opportunity to speak.‭

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