Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Music review: Shevchenko's survey of Brahms, Chopin deeply satisfying

Margarita Shevchenko.

By Greg Stepanich

Margarita Shevchenko‭’‬s program at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton on Saturday night was as core-Romantic as it could get,‭ ‬with much-loved music by Brahms and Chopin making up the bill of fare.

But while these works were twice-‭ ‬and thrice-familiar,‭ ‬the Russian-born resident of North Miami Beach brought a deep,‭ ‬mature vision to the music‭ ‬that enhanced and restored its classic status.‭ ‬By that I don‭’‬t mean that she aped the renditions of pianists of bygone generations‭; ‬simply that the interpretive weight she gave the pieces reminded us why we cherish them.

Shevchenko opened with the seven pieces of Johannes Brahms‭’‬s‭ ‬Fantasien‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬116‭)‬,‭ ‬music written in‭ ‬1892,‭ ‬at the end of the composer‭’‬s career.‭ ‬But there isn‭’‬t a lot of Brahms‭’‬ more familiar late manner in these pieces.‭ ‬There is,‭ ‬rather,‭ ‬plenty of youthful vigor here,‭ ‬and a slightly less cluttered keyboard texture that‭ ‬helps‭ ‬the ideas speak more clearly.

In other words,‭ ‬it‭’‬s‭ ‬music that‭’‬s‭ ‬tough to play and intensely serious,‭ ‬and in the three Capriccios‭ (‬Nos.‭ ‬1,‭ ‬3‭ ‬and‭ ‬7‭)‬,‭ ‬Shevchenko played with plenty of fire and muscle.‭ ‬In the contrasting section of the second Capriccio,‭ ‬she demonstrated one of her best qualities:‭ ‬Big,‭ ‬beautiful singing tone.‭ ‬That same attribute was evident in the Intermezzo‭ (‬No.‭ ‬4‭ ‬in E‭) ‬that followed,‭ ‬the most widely‭ ‬known piece of the set,‭ ‬primarily for its lovely main theme.

In the E minor Intermezzo‭ (‬No.‭ ‬5‭)‬,‭ ‬Shevchenko‭ ‬pedaled through the rests,‭ ‬creating a very interesting,‭ ‬unusual texture in which the inner voices murmured and blurred in a stagnant,‭ ‬bitter atmosphere.‭ ‬She kept up the prophetic approach in the next Intermezzo‭ (‬No.‭ ‬6‭ ‬in E‭)‬,‭ ‬emphasizing its slippery chromaticism,‭ ‬then swept it away with a fierce reading of the final Capriccio‭ (‬No.‭ ‬7‭ ‬in D minor‭)‬,‭ ‬tearing into it with virtually no break from No.‭ ‬6.

The music of Chopin took up the rest of the recital,‭ ‬all of it relatively late music as well,‭ ‬beginning with one of his finest works,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Polonaise-Fantaisie‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬61‭) ‬of‭ ‬1846.‭ ‬This is a most difficult piece‭ ‬to bring off because its episodic nature can make it sound choppy and incoherent.‭ ‬But Shevchenko is a musician who knows how to‭ ‬maintain a narrative‭ ‬line,‭ ‬so that the music had its mood-shifting fantasy element without losing sight of the polonaise hovering in the background.

One reason she was able to do this was the‭ ‬fresh color she brought to the various iterations of the main theme‭; ‬the vividness of each new framework helped the listener hear it again,‭ ‬and retain it as it made its way through the rest of the piece.‭ ‬It would have‭ ‬been even better with a somewhat crisper sense of rhythm in the polonaise sections,‭ ‬but overall this was a beautiful traversal of this work.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬her closing pages,‭ ‬with their treacherous sliding chords and pounding octaves in the left hand,‭ ‬were admirably clear.‭ ‬Many are the pianists who will make a hash of the last couple pages,‭ ‬but not Shevchenko,‭ ‬who carried them off well.‭

The Barcarolle‭ (‬in F-sharp,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬60‭)‬,‭ ‬also from Chopin‭’‬s final period,‭ ‬benefited from Shevchenko‭’‬s tone production in particular,‭ ‬and her performance‭ ‬in general‭ ‬had the right feel of exuberant Romanticism,‭ ‬as a simple Italianate gondolier ballad blossoms immediately into a huge statement,‭ ‬rich with thirds and sixths.‭ ‬Although the Barcarolle is less complex than the Polonaise-Fantaisie,‭ ‬it has the same kind of nearly overwrought ending,‭ ‬which Shevchenko also handled just as ably,‭ ‬with a precisely drilled tumble to a low F-sharp at the every end.‭

The recital ended with the so-called‭ ‬Heroic Polonaise‭ (‬in A-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬53‭)‬.‭ ‬Shevchenko‭’‬s interpretation was quite straightforward,‭ ‬and‭ ‬technically excellent,‭ ‬with good octaves in the E major cavalry charge in the middle.‭ ‬The second subject needed some more dynamic contrast and a shorter,‭ ‬bouncier rhythmic approach,‭ ‬as did the middle section,‭ ‬in which the theme was a little too soft and not crisp enough to make it stand out as well as it should have.

Still,‭ ‬in general this performance had all the force and swagger it needed to make a vigorous impression,‭ ‬and the smallish house at the gallery rose to its feet at its triumphant ending.

Shevchenko played more Chopin for the encore:‭ ‬the famous Grand Valse Brillante‭ (‬in E-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬18‭)‬.‭ ‬Aside from the second strain,‭ ‬whose repeated notes were not all there the first time around,‭ ‬Shevchenko tossed this work off expertly,‭ ‬with a swift tempo and fine finger work,‭ ‬especially in the glittering figurations in the final pages.‭

After a concert of large-boned,‭ ‬thickly scored pieces,‭ ‬it was a pleasure to hear this more playful side of Shevchenko‭’‬s art,‭ ‬and like the rest of her efforts Saturday night,‭ ‬it had an adult polish to it that reflected the‭ ‬work of an artist who knows the music she‭’‬s presenting and knows exactly what she wants to say.

The Piano Lovers series continues Saturday,‭ ‬July‭ ‬9,‭ ‬with a return appearance by the Venezuelan-born pianist Vanessa Perez.‭ ‬Her program will include works by Chopin and Mozart,‭ ‬as well as music by Spanish composers.‭ ‬The concert is set for‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬at the Boca Steinway Gallery.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$20‭ ‬in advance and‭ ‬$25‭ ‬at the door.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬929-6633‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬www.pianolovers.org.

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