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Getting to the Heart

November 4, 2005

Mari Kodama

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By Robert Commanday

Boldness and the unexpected are at the core of Beethoven and that spirit informed Mari Kodama's remarkable piano recital in Grass Valley Friday. It was in a hall at the Nevada County fairgrounds. Four Beethoven sonatas are not what one would expect as the opening of the season, the 24th for Music in the Mountains, its Fall Fest weekend, certainly not when the capper is the Hammerklavier , the B flat sonata, No. 106.

Coming first, the three sonatas of Opus 10 drew the listener deeply into Beethoven, setting up a dual-faceted preparation for the mountain to follow. While remaining distinctive individually, heard in succession, the three set up the language, the style and the manner of that great imagination. Then when the Hammerklavier burst onto the senses, the elements of his musical language seemed to explode. The full import of the quantum leap between Op. 10 and Op. 106 became clear.

This happened in the most powerful way because Kodama 's artistry established in the recital's first half an expressive focus that was unerring and true. The playing was highly refined, clean, lucid, finely nuanced. And she has the range of temperament to suit this music. In Op. 10, No. 1 in C minor, with the particularity of her phrasing, the gentleness of the response to the assertive beginning heightened the insistency of the restless, intense movement. In this sonata, she grasped and controlled the large ideas exactly right.

Up to the task

Op. 10, No. 2 is another personality altogether. Kodama played up the humor and the flashes of temperament. Her playing was as exquisite as it must be to bring off the harmonic switchbacks and the quirkiness of the amusing faux fugue. Apparently, she is en route to encompass the entire Beethoven cycle, having recorded two discs of Beethoven sonatas issued last year. In comparison to those performances, Friday's revealed her advance in poise, flexibility of expression, and subtlety.

WIth Op. 10, No. 3, Beethoven took a large step toward his later style. He launched the sonata with a willful gesture of a kind that became a signature. Kodama led the way into this enlarging statement, her playing ever bigger. The "Largo e mesto" is the tragic Beethoven, and Kodama gave it the space and feeling, the pathos that makes this work a turning point. With this sonata, Beethoven goes back to the four-movement design, continuing with a minuet that's a charm and a finale with surprises in the harmonies and a lightness that she captured.

For all pianists living and dead, the Hammerklavier is a work in progress, no one coming away from it with the feeling that that time it was "just right." To Kodama's full credit, she found the power that bursts out of the jolting opening thrust and sustained the great structure built from those first chords. She kept re-generating the force of this movement in the big contrasts and clashes of the ideas. The scherzo, spinning along with its jerky, dotted rhythm, has a startling interruption and flashes that would seem to keep it going on and on, but it jumps ahead. Then it unexpectedly abbreviated as if in deliberate impatience to get on to the monumental adagio. It is more than that, nearly 17 minutes in length, and Kodama, reaching for the long line of it, was persuasive in this fantasy of feeling. It moves from meditation to the sublime and yet goes beyond to the finest of pianissimo, disappearing conclusions.The movement must still be impassioned to make the deepest effect and that didn't quite happen. It is the heart of the challenge of this adagio, how to achieve that intensity and yet sustain the line. There was enough in the performance to promise her finding those depths as she lives with the work.

The finale is the breaker or maker. Kodama created the manic contrasts in the largo introduction that lead to the powerhouse fugue fantasy. Its subject is so long and fast as to seem to defy forging into counterpoint. Kodama went for it, catapulting full tilt through all the eruptions, taking chances and winning. It was a propulsive end to a fully involving evening. In lesser hands, it would have been exhausting. In hers, it was exhilarating. She may have had a personal professional agenda that led her to present such a challenging program for an audience unknown to her; but in the outcome, it was a high compliment to that crowd and the festival, and a success.

(Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, 1965-93, and before that a conductor and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.)

©2005 Robert Commanday, all rights reserved