Avery Gagliano offers revelatory Chopin in Carnegie Hall debut

Wed Dec 01, 2021 at 2:10 pm
Pianist Avery Gagliano performed at Carnegie Hall Tuesday night. Photo: Chris Lee

Today’s question: Which composer’s music does pianist Avery Gagliano play the best?

Hint: Her recital Tuesday night was presented by the Chopin Foundation of the United States.

The young artist was First Prize winner of the 2020 National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami, which is affiliated with the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, in which she participated this fall.

Gagliano began her program in Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall with a respectable performance of a Bach suite and followed with a more-than-respectable late Beethoven sonata, rich in fantasy.

But it was when she turned to seven pieces (and three encores) by the Polish master that worlds of drama and poetry grew to fill the intimate hall.

It was brave to begin such a high-profile recital with the fast, fugal Prelude of the English Suite No. 2 in A minor, but Gagliano dispatched Bach’s finger-twister with apparent ease, checking off each entrance of the leaping theme. Here and in the ensuing Allemande and Courante, due attention was paid to differentiating the voices, but a sameness of tone color made one too aware of the piano as a box of hammers and strings rather than a weaver of musical moods.

Things began looking up in the sensitively flowing Sarabande, and the two Bourrées radiated Scarlatti-like flash and Teutonic bonhomie, respectively. It was hard at times to find the beat in the closing Gigue, but one couldn’t fault the pianist’s lively, detaché touch in both leggiero and marcato moments.

In its opening pages at least, Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 109, is really an anti-sonata. Instead of making sense, as a good sonata should, it flings out a handful of apparently unrelated ideas and just leaves them there. But a sensitive performer can capture the emotional flow of it all, and on Tuesday, Gagliano painted a convincing portrait of the composer’s mind as he tried out ideas at the keyboard, spurting ahead, screeching to a halt, and contemplating his next move.

The second movement’s tempo marking, Prestissimo, tempts performers to rush the beat, but Gagliano mostly resisted that temptation, playing with drama and suspense, if not quite the running-wild feeling implied in that marking. Each variation in the sonata’s finale was vividly characterized—though more singing tone was needed in the theme and the arioso moments—and the final free variation rose ecstatically through a cloud of trills.

By this point in the program, Gagliano’s musical sensitivity and timing were not in doubt. Nevertheless, her ability to inhabit every room in the immense imagination of Frédéric Chopin came as a revelation. From the bardic summons of the G minor Ballade to the obscure but tantalizing poetry of the C minor Mazurka of Op. 56 to the athletic revelry of the B-flat minor Scherzo, the young pianist seemed to go straight to the heart of what the great Pole was trying to say.

She was evidently aided in this by a Russian pedagogical heritage, conveyed by two teachers cited in her program biography, Marina Alekseyeva and Gary Graffman. That lineage was also reflected in her singing tone, big round fortissimos without banging, and an instinct to breathe with the music in generous rubato.

With these tools in hand, she unfolded an unusually suspenseful account of the Ballade, in which the dizzy waltz episode danced on the edge of an abyss, and the return of the enigmatic first theme had a distinct undertone of anxiety, foreshadowing the piece’s catastrophic ending.

In the Etude in E minor, Op. 25, no. 5, the gnomish little tune was transformed into a lush left-hand melody with exquisite figurations twinkling overhead. The B major Nocturne, Op. 62, no. 1, piled lushness on lushness as the principal theme returned in an efflorescence of pearly trills.

Gagliano made the most of the contrasting characters of the Three Mazurkas, Op. 56, blending introspection and lighter moments in the B major, honking out rustic drones in the humorous C major, and probing the C minor’s dark passageways to its strange, intensely chromatic conclusion.

When they were first published, Chopin’s Scherzos (the first three, anyway) were by far the most ferocious music ever given that title. But they remain playful, in the sense that the Green Bay Packers are said to “play.”  Even though the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor has a soaring main theme and a big storm in the middle, Gagliano never let it sound like a Ballade, emphasizing instead the sheer fun of singing out a tune and playing like the wind.

Other kinds of winds blew through her first two encores, softly swirling and teasing in the F minor Etude, Op. 25, no. 2, roiling and turbulent in the “Revolutionary” Etude, Op. 10, no. 12. Then the Chopin whisperer graciously took her leave with the tiny, 16-bar waltz Prelude in A major from Op. 28.

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