Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Prelude in G-sharp Minor Op.32, No. 12
Prelude in B-minor Op.32, No. 10
Étude-Tableau in E-flat minor Op.39, No. 5
Prelude in G-flat Major Op.23, No 10
Prelude in B-flat Major Op.23, No. 2
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la Nuit
Heinz Holliger (b.1939)
Elis - Three Nightpieces (1961)
Based on texts from “An den Knaben Elis” (“To the Boy Elis”) by Georg Trakl
I. Elis, when the merle calls in the black forest, this is your doom
II. Blue doves drink at night the icy sweat, that trickles from Elis’ crystalline forehead
III. A golden boat, Elis, rocks your heart back and forth in the lonely heavens
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
From The Seasons, Op. 37b
October: Autumn Song
January: At the Fireside
Alexander Skryabin (1872-1915)
Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9
Fantasy in B minor, Op. 28
This was an important event, not only because of the superb playing of a young musician I hope to hear many times again, but also because it showed what the Colonial Theatre can really do for classical music in our community. I have already commented enthusiastically about the acoustics in the hall, which remind me somewhat of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and are excellent for small string ensembles, chamber music, and piano, if the piano is of the right sort, that is, smaller than a full sized concert grand. The Colonial has acquired a splendid rare instrument in an 1894 Hamburg Steinway, a nine foot Model D, which in a modern instrument would be too powerful for the hall. However, this piano, built less than ten years before the Colonial itself, has a smaller, less resonant sound, and is close to perfect for the acoustic. Damping is tighter than on a modern instrument, allowing for transparency and clarity in richly textured music, and its balance favors the creamy central area of its span, as is the case with older pianos, and sparing us a top which would be too clangorous and an over-heavy bass. I should imagine that any pianist with confidence, flexibility, and a bit of imagination would be thrilled to play this instrument in a hall for which it is so well suited. On the other hand, there was a certain reticence to the sound, as if the restored instrument were not yet broken in. From what I heard in the hall as well as the reports from people who have played it, further adjustments are most definitely needed.
However, the truly important part of the evening was Benjamin Moser, a 26-year-old native of Munich, whose American concert appearances are sponsored by Young Concert Artists, Inc., and organization which, since its founding in 1961, has started the careers of Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax, Dawn Upshaw, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. Mr. Moser won First Prize in the 2007 Young Concert Artists International Auditions. His playing on Thursday evening proved entirely worthy of the distinguished musicians I have just named. Offering a technically and musically challenging program, in fact an especially interesting and satisfying one, he showed an impressive technique, which was equal to all of those challenges, and was always harnessed to serve the substantial musical values of these works. While Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Skryabin have all been widely associated with virtuoso show pieces, they are equally composers who have explored the deeper regions of the psyche and have written some truly great music. This was the aspect of their work Benjamin Moser chose to present. Here were Rachmaninoff and Ravel at their best, a sensitive Tchaikovsky and Skryabin, and a haunting piece from the 1960’s by the renowned oboist Heinz Holliger, who is also highly respected as a composer, although his music is less often played in this country than it should be. The piece, a work based on three poems by the great expressionist poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914) brings us close to the generation of Ravel, Skryabin and Rachmaninoff, maintaining the lush mood of the early twentieth century, while offering us a welcome taste of more recent music. Moser produced a sound of great beauty on the old Steinway, but maintained limpid textures and details which are rarely played with such nuance. This suited the Russians as well as the Frenchman and the modern German. Skryabin especially benefitted from the clarity and precision which underpinned Moser’s treatment of his mystical, but surprisingly lucid outpourings. (Skryabin himself was known for his restraint as a pianist.) Moser approached Ravel’s wonderful Gaspard de la Nuit with exceptional imagination, absorption, and variety of effect. Moser’s rigor and the tight damping of the Steinway eliminated any vague impressionistic effect. Every phrase was articulated clearly, and Ravel’s strong harmonies were fully weighted.
As I listened, the beauty of Moser’s tone, his clarity, and his temperate sensitivity began to remind me of one of my own musical heroes, Wilhelm Kempff, who brought a penetrating insight of intellect and feeling to Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. Although the repertory on this program was totally different, the connection made itself felt. Surely enough, it turns out that Moser studied at the Institut für Künstlerische Ausbildung, Berlin with Klaus Hellwig, who was in fact a pupil of Kempff. It is truly gratifying to know that the essence of Kempff’s profound musicianship is being carried on—and by a musician who was ten years old when Kempff died.
This was an exceptional evening. Benjamin Moser is an outstanding musician of sharp intelligence and highly developed sensitivity, not to mention maturity beyond his years. He should have a splendid career ahead of him, and I look forward to hearing him again often. The Colonial has had little classical music on its program this season, but its hosting of the distinguished Young Concert Artists program and especially Benjamin Moser, who is both brilliant and wise, makes up for a lot. I hope they will buld on this next season and make good use of their beautiful instrument.