by JEFF WINSLOW
Portland Piano International’s artistic director Arnaldo Cohen and executive director Ellen Bergstone Wasil should be feeling pretty pleased with themselves about now. They took a chance marrying their Rising Stars series of up-and-coming touring concert pianists with a series of twelve commissions to Oregon composers for new works inspired by classics of the repertory. As Henry Kramer’s November 15 recital showed, things are working out very well. There was a smidgen of esthetic mismatch between the new, represented by Eugene composer and University of Oregon professor of music David Crumb, and the old, represented by Frédéric Chopin and Johannes Brahms, but it was easily smoothed over by Kramer’s extraordinary artistry.
PPI also took a chance on the venue this time, the front showroom of south Portland’s Freeman Motor Company. That didn’t work out quite as well. It’s difficult to find and access for folks driving from downtown Portland, and it’s separated from busy Macadam Avenue by only a sidewalk and a line of apparently thick but giant windows. (Not only that, the e-mailed publicity sent us to their service department over a mile away.) Fortunately, the company put out a royal welcome to both artists and audience, and Kramer’s absorbing performances made it easy to ignore the low-level deviations from typical concert hall ambience.
Chopin and Brahms were arguably the two greatest composers to live their lives entirely in the 19th century. Both were top-notch pianists, and both arduously honed their craft throughout their lives, but the similarity ends there. Chopin, an upper-class Pole who spent most of his life in France, devoted himself to piano composition, thoroughly exploring the expressive capabilities of what was then new technology and meticulously crafting works to give the illusion of improvisation. Never a strong man, he died in his 40th year from tuberculosis. Brahms was the son of a struggling musician and grew up playing piano for a pittance in the saloons of Hamburg’s waterfront. He composed in every genre of the time but opera, and while his music also often gives the illusion of artlessness, it even more often shows off his prodigious technique, so much so that the very different Russian composer Piotr Tchaikovsky referred to him as “that giftless bastard.” Brahms was also an avid rambler and hiker, and once nearly dragged his father to the top of a minor peak in the Alps.
Chopin may not have been much of a hiker, but his second piano sonata is as rugged a pianistic adventure as they come. Kramer powered through its difficulties with energy to spare, but also took care to, yes, pause to smell the flowers. A few stumbles in the opening section of the brutal Scherzo were forgotten as he aced the reprise. I wanted the iconic funeral march in the slow movement to be slower, more extreme, but there is the tone painting of a horse-drawn bier to consider. If you missed the performance, you can catch his Thursdays @ 3 performance on the All Classical radio website for another week, in particular his unusually beautifully nuanced performance of the spooky yet frenetic finale. There was a more uniform rush on Sunday, but it never became the incomprehensible blur favored by pianists less interested in music than showing off how fast their fingers work.
David Crumb’s new Nocturne began with deep bell tones and an intriguing and rather doleful harmonic ambiguity – was the key major? Minor? Was there going to be traditional harmony at all? The answer is… yes and no. There was nothing retro about it, yet Crumb seemed every bit as concerned as Chopin with the harmonic support a sustained bass gives to a singing treble. A pensive melody gradually developed, but as might be expected on the other side of the musically tumultuous 20th century, the work never split as simply into melody and accompaniment as Chopin’s nocturnes tend to. Edgier harmonies tinged more urgent filigrees as the work grew more animated, but eventually the opening mood returned to dissipate magically, floating off in a further evocation of bells. Kramer didn’t play this work from memory, but even so, it seemed to flow naturally from somewhere deep inside. Well-judged pedaling perfectly melded ringing left hand accents with a right hand that did seem to sing.
If there were any doubts about the source of Crumb’s inspiration, they were put to rest by the following work, that exemplar of Chopin nocturnes, Op. 27 #2 in Db major. Kramer’s performance was unaffected and lyrical, exactly what the work requires. With Crumb’s more impressionistic opus still freshly in mind, I hoped Kramer would let this nocturne also float off at the end, articulating the concluding harmony with touch rather than with pedal, but he chose a simpler, traditional approach.
It’s also traditional for pianists to huff and puff their way through Brahms’ punishing Variations on a Theme of Paganini, which are as much etudes to hone keyboard technique as they are fanciful inventions on Paganini’s well-known ditty. It can even turn into a bit of a slog, but Kramer’s way with it was a revelation. (Unfortunately the only video available online, like the one above, doesn’t really do him justice – in it, he’s still more apprentice than sorcerer.) There was a great deal of athleticism, true, but the overall impression was of a work surprisingly light on its feet. His only miscalculation was plunging into the driving finale of the first half too fast and turning it into a gray avalanche of notes, the sign of a pianist not quite in control. Also, I wished that the sweeter, slower variations could have provided even more of a respite in the prevailing whirlwind. But in general all was as clear as could be, and Kramer found an amazing amount of music in what are, after all, a series of exercises. There is a lot of repetition in such a work, but he found many a poetic detail to bring out here and there, so that one rarely became impatient for the next variation. One variation requires the pianist to play glissandi in octaves with the right hand only, which the mere thought of can cause a lesser pianist’s hand to twitch in agony. Kramer’s seemed miraculously effortless.
Those glissandi are a good symbol for the entire experience. Crumb and Kramer are mavens of their respective arts who have no doubt worked like demons to achieve what they’ve achieved, yet to hear them talk, there’s nothing to it: they just do what they need to do. The result is enormously pleasing for their audience. With a payout like that, more classical presenters should follow PPI’s lead and take a chance on supporting local composers.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland pianist and composer who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.