Monday, June 7, 2010
Music review: Pianist Gilbert impressive in Chopin evening
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.