Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Music review: Pianist Weisman brings meaty program to Piano Lovers series

Assaff Weisman.

By Greg Stepanich

Assaff Weisman leads a busy life as a pianist,‭ ‬teacher‭ ‬at the Juilliard School,‭ ‬and chief of an international‭ ‬chamber ensemble whose debut disc arrives later this year.

To put it another way,‭ ‬he‭’‬s a thorough,‭ ‬expert musician,‭ ‬the kind on‭ ‬whom the classical world depends to keep the art form relevant and fresh for audiences and students.‭ ‬What remains for him is to carve out a truly distinctive style at the keyboard,‭ ‬and there were hints of what that could be at his recital Friday night in Boca Raton.

Appearing before a rather large house at the Steinway Gallery,‭ ‬Weisman presented music by Haydn,‭ ‬Liszt,‭ ‬Brahms and Debussy‭ ‬in a wide-ranging,‭ ‬demanding program that showcased the pianist‭’‬s command of different styles‭ ‬and his impressive technique,‭ ‬his sensitivity to dynamics and his interest in challenging repertoire.

The late Haydn sonata‭ (‬No.‭ ‬49‭ ‬in E-flat,‭ ‬Hob.‭ ‬XVI:‭ ‬49‭) ‬that opened the concert was notable for its clarity and evenness,‭ ‬being smooth and polished from the first to the last.‭ ‬It could have used some more personality‭; ‬the first movement‭ (‬whose opening five-note riff needs to be absolutely precise,‭ ‬though it wasn‭’‬t here‭) ‬needed a stronger,‭ ‬Beethovenian sense of forward motion,‭ ‬which perhaps could have been achieved in part with a little more drama,‭ ‬more lift on those Fifth Symphony-style precursor motifs‭ ‬in the middle,‭ ‬and wider dynamic contrast throughout.

Similarly,‭ ‬the second movement,‭ ‬lovely as Weisman‭’‬s tone production was,‭ ‬would have benefited with starker colors,‭ ‬especially in the B-flat minor triplet section and the transition section after it.‭ ‬The melodic fragments in the left hand of the triplet section,‭ ‬for instance,‭ ‬needed to strike a slightly longer pose,‭ ‬and each of the variations of the opening material might have come across with more shape had there been the tiniest of pauses before them.

Weisman played the last movement,‭ ‬marked as a minuet,‭ ‬with a leisurely tempo and much the same steady approach as the first two.‭ ‬And while it was quite attractive,‭ ‬more contrast,‭ ‬again,‭ ‬would have been welcome,‭ ‬perhaps with dynamic breadth on those cadential triplets,‭ ‬which would have reminded listeners why generations have cherished the musical wit of Papa Haydn.

The Debussy‭ ‬Estampes that followed the Haydn offered a good deal of well-applied color,‭ ‬particularly in‭ ‬Pagodes,‭ ‬the first‭ ‬of the three pieces in the set.‭ ‬Most notable was the hushed quality of much of Weisman‭’‬s performance,‭ ‬which created a compelling atmosphere of lush,‭ ‬perfumed stasis.

A bit too much of this mood carried over into‭ ‬La soirée dans Grenade,‭ ‬which sounded somewhat sluggish and much in need of some snap,‭ ‬especially in the habanera pulse that undergirds the‭ ‬piece,‭ ‬though technically speaking it was well-handled.‭ ‬The closing‭ ‬Jardins sous la pluie‭ ‬opened with a good,‭ ‬crisp tempo and ended with a powerful sense of steadily building exultation‭; ‬although this music is more akin to Debussy‭’‬s‭ ‬Pour le Piano than some of the later Preludes,‭ ‬a more evanescent approach to its initial pages would have given it greater contrast with the other pieces and a more striking profile.

Liszt‭’‬s three‭ ‬Petrarch Sonnets opened the second half,‭ ‬which played to Weisman‭’‬s strengths as a provider of long,‭ ‬legato lines and singing tone.‭ ‬This was particularly true in the outer sonnets,‭ ‬Nos.‭ ‬47‭ ‬and‭ ‬123,‭ ‬which were beautifully tender and serene,‭ ‬and in which Weisman was able,‭ ‬in No.‭ ‬47,‭ ‬to provide a very attractive,‭ ‬glassy hush for the high-register accompaniment figures in the right hand.

The Sonnet No.‭ ‬104,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬is equal parts fire and introspection,‭ ‬and‭ ‬in the bravura section in the middle Weisman sounded somewhat labored,‭ ‬and without enough lightness of touch to make a good contrast between the display of the middle section and the inwardness that opens and closes the piece.

For his final selection,‭ ‬Weisman chose the‭ ‬Handel Variations of Brahms‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬24‭)‬,‭ ‬a fine,‭ ‬underappreciated piece in Brahms‭’‬ most exuberant early manner,‭ ‬thick figurations and all.‭ ‬Weisman did an admirable job of pacing this work so that it built gradually and inexorably to the final fugue.

This pianist‭’‬s feeling for cleanness of texture stood him in good stead in the opening theme‭ (‬from‭ ‬the Harpsichord Suite No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬of Handel‭) ‬and the first variation,‭ ‬the chattering march music of the seventh and eighth variations,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬siciliano‭ ‬of the‭ ‬19th,‭ ‬which he played with a charming,‭ ‬engaging lilt.

The more lyrical variations‭ ‬– Nos.‭ ‬5,‭ ‬11‭ ‬and‭ ‬12‭ ‬– also came off quite well,‭ ‬as did the repeated appoggiaturas of the‭ ‬21st.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬Weisman raised serious energy in the more tumultuous variations,‭ ‬such as No.‭ ‬14,‭ ‬and especially No.‭ ‬24,‭ ‬which was among the most exciting playing of the evening.

Weisman played the closing fugue quite well,‭ ‬with a big,‭ ‬powerful ending that had the audience‭’‬s full attention.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬varied as the fugue is,‭ ‬it still remains resolutely in the home key of B-flat,‭ ‬and this reading of the final section could have used some more shade and dramatic dynamic contrast.‭ ‬There has to be a sense of being taken into new territory,‭ ‬and this performance was just a touch too homebound.

For an encore,‭ ‬Weisman played the Impromptu in E-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬24,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬3,‭ ‬by the forgotten Russian pianist and composer Sergei Bortkiewicz‭ (‬1877-1952‭)‬.‭ ‬This is a big,‭ ‬Rachmaninovian utterance‭ (‬it‭’‬s subtitled‭ ‬Eros‭)‬,‭ ‬full of expansive gestures and a breathless theme that drops by half-steps,‭ ‬though without the melodic distinction of Rachmaninov or Scriabin.

Weisman played it with power and sweep,‭ ‬if a bit too deliberately,‭ ‬and the audience‭ ‬responded warmly.‭

Assaff Weisman is a fine musician,‭ ‬an accomplished‭ ‬pianist who can play his instrument with persuasive skill and command.‭ ‬It seems to me that the next step for him is to add more color and shade,‭ ‬and a greater sense of mystery and drama,‭ ‬to his playing in order to fully realize his considerable talent and‭ ‬break new artistic ground.

The next event in the Piano Lovers series is set for Saturday,‭ ‬May‭ ‬14.‭ ‬Serbian-born pianist Misha Dacic will play an all-Liszt program in honor of the composer‭’‬s‭ ‬200th birthday.‭ ‬Tickets for the‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬recital are‭ ‬$20‭ ‬in advance,‭ ‬and‭ ‬$25‭ ‬at the door.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬929-6633‭ ‬for more information.

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