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Half and Half

July 15, 2008

For his 50th birthday celebration Friday night, pianist Daniel Glover presented his Old First Church audience with a recital split right down the middle. His first half featured works of overly ripe Russian Romanticism, heavy on flashy piano writing but music of questionable worth. His second half, however, was devoted to dazzling performances of major, not hackneyed Liszt repertoire, plus one gentle encore.
Glover opened with three pieces of Nicolai Medtner: Improvisation in B-flat Minor and Funeral March in B Minor, Op. 31, Nos. 1 and 2 (1915), plus the Danza festival in D Major, Op. 38, No. 3 (1920). These he followed with Rachmaninov's major problem child, the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36 (1913-1931). Following intermission we heard Liszt's Two Legends of 1863 (St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds, and St. Francis of Paola Walking on the Water), the earlier Benediction of God in Solitude from the "Poetic and Religious Harmonies" (1852), and finally the bravura Fantasy on Themes from Wagner's Rienzi (1859). For an encore, Glover played Scriabin's Prelude for the left hand in C-sharp Minor, Op. 9, No. 1 (1894). (The second of those two Scriabin "lefty" pieces is a Nocturne.)

Between his Opp. 30 and 40, Rachmaninov composed much of his most brilliant piano music. After all, those begin with the Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30, and close with the Paganini Rhapsody, Op. 40. Between these two pillars stand the 13 Preludes of Op. 32, and the two books of Études-Tableaux, Opp. 33 and 36 — plus the weaker Sonata No. 2.

Rachmaninov wasn't satisfied with the original 1913 version of the Sonata and worked on revising it until 1931. Mostly he largely shortened it, as he also had done with his performance version of the Third Concerto. After playing the revised version on tour for a bit, he gave up on that, as well.

Enter his friend Vladimir Horowitz, who asked for and received permission to revise the piece yet again. This Horowitz occasionally played in the 1940s and '50s, later recording it. What Horowitz did was to reintroduce some elements of the first version into the composer's 1931 version. But it still doesn't hold together.
Patched-Together Finale
The main problem is the weak materials of the finale. There's a lot of sound and keyboard fury, yet the thematic content just isn't up to that of the first two movements. In an attempt to soften that problem, Glover produced his own version: a part from this, a part from that, a part from the other thing. The essential problem remains, however: No amount of thundering keyboard commotion can really get that finale over the fence.

For all the bravura in the finale's music, it still sounds like a work-in-progress, one in which anyone can more or less reedit as they please. That said, the lyrical passages of the first movement and all of the slow movement are prime Rachmaninov. Perhaps someday someone will find a solution. That, or simply cut the finale entirely?

Medtner (1880-1951) and Rachmaninov were fellow schoolmates at the Moscow Conservatory, and they remained lifelong friends. Medtner has been called "Rachmaninov Lite." Still, he has his fans, and indeed there was even a Medtner Society years ago, pushing his music — perhaps it still exists; don't know. Largely, he wrote almost exclusively for the piano, including three concertos. But to me his work sounds mostly like watered-down Schumann, at best. The lack of striking ideas is remarkable in his unrelenting devotion to blandness.

Then along came the Liszt pieces, all brilliantly inventive and serious in tone. Even the Wagnerian rhapsody sounded reverential to the original. The use of glittering, soft scales and arpeggios that Liszt devised for the bird and water-walking music for his saints set a new pattern of writing that influenced much future piano style — especially French piano music. Debussy's and Ravel's piano works are full of such Lisztian devices. Later, they turn up in Bartók and Messiaen, as well. Indeed, the obvious influences on Messiaen's bird passages and even titles are glaring.

Audiences of the 1850s and '60s were quite startled by these religious delicacies, especially after getting used to Liszt's early blasting and bombastic pieces. After all, he had a reputation as something of a rake. Now he was writing profoundly religious music?
New Sound World
Liszt's poetic whirligigs had created an entirely new sound world for music. With time, the Two Legends were considered important enough to be orchestrated by Liszt himself. That provoked the Franciscan Monastery of Pest to awarded him a St. Francis medal, a thing reserved for major religious contributions. The Legends form a kind of two-movement tone poem, running a bit over 20 minutes.

It has always seemed odd to me that Liszt's avant-garde innovations are not recognized as being in the same class as those of his friends Berlioz and Wagner. After all, in his later works Liszt was experimenting with bitonality (Nuages gris — Gray clouds), atonality (Bagatelle sans Tonalité), ending without a cadence (the first Valse oubliée, which just stops!). In the opening theme of A Faust Symphony, Liszt created the first 12-tone theme. Far beyond the superficial virtuosity of his reputation, he was relentless in anticipating much of the 20th century.

At Old First Church, Daniel Glover seemed most in his element when playing the Liszt pieces: more relaxed, with more-colorful timbres and better rhythmic control. But beyond that, there was a flawless sense of Lisztian style incorporating its emotional depth. Those virtues were not always true for his Medtner or Rachmaninov selections, all of which sounded a tad impatient. But golly, can he play when faced with worthy compositions! I kept expecting smoke to emerge from the interior of the instrument during the Liszt.

Scriabin's Prelude for the left hand was elegantly, even lovingly done, brimming with warmth throughout its lush textures. Much of the time it sounded like the pianist was playing with both hands, but then, that's also true of Ravel's Concerto for the left hand. It is indeed one of the more impressive of the composer's early piano works, especially when it is so handsomely played.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.
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