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Concert Review

Todd Crow displays subtle, masterful artistry at Zankel Hall

Fri May 24, 2019 at 11:21 am
Todd Crow performed a recital Thursday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Karl Rabe

Todd Crow performed a recital Thursday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Karl Rabe

The classical music business being what it is—recordings, tours, marketing—it can be hard to discover the many fine musicians who have built careers outside of the limelight.

An example of that is Todd Crow, a terrific pianist who spent nearly 50 years teaching at Vassar, retiring in 2018. Thursday night he played at Zankel Hall in a concert presented by the Vassar College Music Department, and without the trappings of the business, it was the chance to hear something approaching pure music-making.

Crow played pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Debussy, Henri Dutilleux, and Bartók. The unifying flavor was one of romantic expression—the latter three may be fairly thought of as modernists, but their emotional quality encompasses rich sensations and mysteries.

Beginning with Mendelssohn’s Sonate écossaise, technically known as the Op. 28 Fantasy in F-sharp Minor, Crow created an atmosphere for listening that was ideal, a flow for the audience of relaxed concentration. This came from his thinking and his touch; the former was clear, natural, and unobtrusive, the latter was the kind that sounded quick and light while still giving rounded weight to each note.

His playing in the Fantasy had such appropriate phrasing that it sounded effortless in both the physical and intellectual sense. Except for a couple small instances, his pianism was impeccable, everything articulated smoothly and transparently, his steady rhythms and tempos spinning the music along as if it were rolling down a gentle slope. And the music sounded so right that Crow himself seemed to gladly tuck himself unobtrusively behind the notes, like a companionable, benevolent Wizard of Oz.

There was barely the sense that he was imposing his ideas on the composers—he held on to Mendelssohn’s drone-like dissonances at the end of the Con moto in the Fantasy, as if he wanted to hear them a little longer, and he added a slight exaggeration to many of the sonorities in Debussy’s Etude No. 10, “pour les sonorités opposées,” the first piece after intermission, and the only flawed performance.

In that instance, he seemed a little flummoxed by the piano, which let him down at times during the performance. Part of the instrument’s middle and lower range sounded out of tune, and that did hamper Debussy’s conception and writing in the Etude, and also had a notable effect on Dutilleux’s Three Préludes.

This was less prominent in Schumann’s Kreisleriana, in part due to Crow’s gentle, lyrical approach and the ease of his playing—the unusual dissonances just melted away. Other than some smudged runs in the first movement, “Außerst bewegt,” the piece seemed to have no technical challenges for the pianist.

This was serious musicianship–unvirtuosic virtuosity and masterful playing that was self-effacing, with no display of effort or gesture. Crow played with a sense of meaning and import, but channeled his thinking into how best tohave one note follow another. It was mesmerizing in the Dutilleux Préludes, where Crow showed complete apprehension of how the composer was playing with timbres, not just bunching notes together but fanning them out and listening to them shimmer, like a handful of snow tossed in the air on a sunny winter’s day.

Crow’s exact rhythms and tempos—never stiff, always with the feeling they were springing into the next beat—reached their apex in the concluding work, Bartók’s piano transcription of his Dance Suite. His touch was, on the surface, far lighter than one commonly hears in the composer’s music, and the result was marvelous; the music not only had a dance character but a song-like one too. That was apt for a composer who collected folk songs, but more so it was a true realization of compositional art—Bartók took his music out of the earth, but he was a composer, and his notes made abstract art. Crow played the music as such, and with an appreciation for its roots.

To give the audience a bit more, he returned with the encore of Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet No. 104, which came off as the most modest and gentle Liszt playing one will hear, and the most refreshing.

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