Revolution! Pianist Vonsattel foments musical dissent in lively recital for CMS

Fri Feb 03, 2017 at 12:07 pm

Gilles Vonsattel performed a piano recital Thursday night at the Rose Studio for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

You say you want a revolution? Well…how about a piano recital?

In a program titled simply “Revolution,” pianist Gilles Vonsattel made Lincoln Center’s intimate Rose Studio resound Thursday night with echoes of political upheavals past, with works by Dussek, Beethoven, Janáček, Liszt, and Rzewski.

According to introductory remarks by Suzanne Davidson, executive director of the presenter, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Swiss-American pianist started assembling this program five years ago. But no one in the room needed reminding of the “interesting times” this country is living through right now.

In a nod to history’s most notorious revolution, the program had a French thread running through it, from the first piece, Jan Ladislav Dussek’s The Sufferings of the Queen of France, to the encore, Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice” from Preludes, Book II.

Dussek, history’s first touring piano virtuoso and a former employee of Queen Marie Antoinette, more or less ripped The Sufferings from the headlines in 1793, depicting in eleven short scenes the tribulations and death of his onetime patron.

In remarks from the stage, Vonsattel described the suite as a “mini-opera,” but it actually resembled music for a silent movie, hopping from mood to mood as the camera cut from scene to scene, with titles like “The Queen’s imprisonment,” “She reflects on her former greatness,” “They separate her from her children,” and so on.

In Vonsattel’s lively rendition, Dussek proved not only an imaginative scene-painter but a pioneer of piano sonorities we now associate with his younger contemporary, Beethoven. Despite the melodramatic events it depicted—not omitting the sound of the guillotine doing its work—The Sufferings was a mostly reflective piece, a narrative of martyrdom that gave ample scope to the pianist’s vibrant singing tone.

Though not specifically associated with anything political, Beethoven’s nearly-last work for piano, the quirky Six Bagatelles, Op. 126, carried Dussekian jump-cutting to new heights, both between the pieces and within them. The revolution was in the music itself, signaling the passing of the sonata-form old order in favor of the freestyle Romantic character piece for piano. Vonsattel gave a dazzlingly impulsive performance, alternately zipping around the keys and falling back into soulful cantabile.

That approach didn’t serve as well for an earlier Beethoven work, the “Les Adieux” Sonata, Op. 81a, which commemorates events of 1809, when the Austrian imperial family, including Beethoven’s pupil Archduke Rudolph, fled Vienna just ahead of (the French connection again) Napoleon’s approaching army, and came home eight months later when peace had returned.

Beethoven patriotically gave the movements German titles—even making a setting of the word “lebewohl” (farewell) his main theme. (When the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel issued the piece two years later, they translated the titles into French to increase sales—hence “Les Adieux,” and a poignant historical irony.)

Although this is storytelling music—with a happier ending than Dussek’s Sufferings—it also has a firm foundation in sonata form. On Thursday, the pianist’s impetuous rushing and rubato blurred that form, and sounded imposed on the music rather than arising from it. He managed to generate considerable excitement nevertheless, especially in the exuberant finale.

A narrative piano piece by Janáček commemorated such a specific event that the date was part of the title. The Sonata 1.X.1905 (From the Street, 1 October 1905) recalled the death of a university student during demonstrations advocating Czech language and culture in the curriculum. (Here German-speaking Austrians were the oppressors, not the victims.)

In the first movement, “The Presentiment,” a folk-like tune mingled with more agitated material. Vonsattel’s performance painted a turbulent scene of rumbling bass arpeggios and singing phrases on top, blurred with pedal and rubato into a Chopinesque nightmare.

The second and final movement, “The Death”—Janáček composed a third movement, but later destroyed it—was a scene of mourning, with phrases obsessively repeated, as if asking “Why? Why? Why?”  Vonsattel sensitively related those phrases to each other, sustaining the movement’s tension to the final despairing diminuendo.

For Liszt’s Funérailles—an extravaganza incorporating a funeral march, a passionate love scene, and a cavalry charge, no less—Vonsattel cast off whatever shackles remained from the program’s Classical-era works and gave free rein to his inner Romantic in a bold, lusty performance.

Apparently without a thought of pianistic display for its own sake, Vonsattel set about murmuring the march with distant trumpets, then blaring it out starkly; putting an erotic charge under the Liebestraum-like love theme; taking the galloping left-hand figure from a distant “presentiment” to a thrilling presence and back to a rumbling echo; and voicing the cries and whispers of the dramatic coda.

Rumbling bass figures may have been a feature of the Janáček and Liszt pieces, but in Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues they were the piece. After playing a recording of the folk song for which the piece was named, Vonsattel crouched over the bottom end of the piano keyboard and, by artful use of the damper pedal and subtle syncopated accents, turned a repeating figure into an uncanny replica of machine noise in an industrial mill.

In Rzewski’s musical manifesto on the oppression of the working class, a folk song emerged from the din and flourished for a time over bluesy harmonies, only to be swallowed again by the tuneless, faceless hum of the machine. To accomplish these effects called for technical prowess on the Liszt level, which Vonsattel supplied in abundance, leaving unforgettable images in the mind.

As it happened, the whirling fireworks in the Debussy encore were like echoes of Rzewski’s machines, running at hundreds of “revolutions” per minute. And the composer’s sly quotation from “La Marseillaise” at the end brought the evening back to its starting point—one full revolution.

The next presentation of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will be the Shanghai String Quartet in works of Haydn, Bridge, Penderecki and Dvořák, 7:30 p.m.Tuesday at Alice Tully Hall.; 212-875-5788.

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