by JEFF WINSLOW
European culture and history loom large in classical piano music, where one can still find traces of the historical rivalry between Germany and France. Thus it’s notable that young but already masterly French pianist Lise de la Salle chose a program for her Portland debut that was evenly split between quintessentially German composers – Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms – and quintessentially French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Reflecting the current era of European union, she proved insightful and adept at both subcultures. The program, performed a week before Halloween at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, may have been symbolic also: Portland Piano International artistic director Arnaldo Cohen mentioned during his introduction that de la Salle had married just ten days earlier.
The Beethoven sonata she chose, the third of his earliest published set (Op. 2), may not be one of his famously thunderous works. But there’s plenty warning of what he’d unleash on the world once he got free of Joseph Haydn’s well-intentioned but somewhat irksome tutelage. Harmonic feints abound, and de la Salle had a way of making them new, so that I nearly burst out laughing here and there. No doubt her timing was exquisite.
And there is thunder even here. The sonata begins elegantly, if a bit nervously, but soon fanfares in octaves burst out. Even that isn’t enough for Beethoven. After the traditionally calmer contrasting theme, he brings the fanfares back for an even more exuberant go. Then he crashes to what sounds like a big finish, but the movement isn’t even half over yet!
De la Salle’s performance though, energetic as it was, never lost sight of the fact that Beethoven in these years was far from the wild, unkempt figure of legend, but rather was always well-groomed and, when performing in public or in private salons, impeccably dressed. No matter how many notes went rushing by, they were always perfectly clear. The lyrical slow movement was even a little dry for my taste, a creation of the fading 18th century rather than the passionate 19th century to come. But the impish scherzo, with its trio ranging athletically over the keyboard, stirred things up again, and the finale fizzed and bubbled as if uncorked from a celebratory champagne bottle.
A much darker, 20th century thunder erupted from time to time in Ravel’s evocative and masterly “Gaspard from the Night.” De la Salle was apparently having an off day, as slips in easy passages were followed by note-perfect renditions of the hardest ones, but she clearly knew the work’s intricate and sometimes frightening (both to hear and to play) territory well. In “The Gibbet,” no doubt inspired by the same Aloysius Bertrand text that inspired the composer, she seemed to be trying to evoke the sound of a distant bell on the wind, as the ever-present tolling octave came out louder, then softer, then louder again in an irregular pattern. This time it misfired somewhat, and the overall effect was mostly labored. However, that maniacal devil “Scarbo” taunted and snarled with brilliant finesse, and “Ondine,” after ravishing displays of her misty beauty and one desolate yet surprisingly insistent passage, relinquished her quest in the most perfectly executed fade-out I’ve ever heard in nearly 50 years of hearkening to that seductive sprite.
If de la Salle was finding it unsettling to be a newlywed and a touring pianist at the same time, intermission seemed to focus her. The six Debussy Preludes that followed were the high point of the concert. “Sounds and perfumes swirl within the evening air” was still a tad unsettled, but its many mercurial moods were sensitively evoked and we were treated to another exquisite fade-out, unfortunately marred by a thoughtless cough in the audience. Pianistic workouts “The fairies are exquisite dancers,” “Puck’s dance,” and “What the west wind saw” were utterly beguiling, thanks to beautifully judged tempos that never hurried and yet set off brilliantly executed storminess, capers and other filigrees. Of the two technically easier preludes, “The girl with the flaxen hair” was delicately shaped but maybe a little pale – at least, paler than de la Salle’s own radiantly blonde mane. But in “Dancers of Delphi,” often a young piano student’s frustrating introduction to Debussy, every note seemed to relate in exactly the most compelling way to every other note, so that by the deep, concluding Bb major chord, one could believe that the famous oracle was indeed the source of great (at least musical) wisdom.
It would be hard to come up with a work whose overall mood contrasts more sharply with all this impressionistic evocation than Brahms’ endlessly inventive early masterpiece Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Yet the same fine sensitivity which informed de la Salle’s Debussy no doubt animated the many different musical personalities of these 25 variations, which paraded past like well-known characters frequenting a local hangout. One sparkled, another sighed, a third struck macho postures, another chattered breathlessly, another danced, still another sang of a tragic history… and on and on. My only disappointment was the 18th variation, which looped and careened instead of gently emanating impressionistic hues. Just two variations later, any lingering disappointment vanished in a tide gently yet implacably surging out of the depths, where most performers seem intent on creating a flash flood. Again, the critical element is tempo. De la Salle’s sense of the proper tempo for maximum evocative and emotional impact is phenomenal. Nor did it abandon her in the dazzling yet sometimes lyrical final fugue. Possibly only Brahms could so thoroughly integrate Romantic fancy with this most severe of musical forms, and de la Salle’s nuanced and ultimately thrilling performance brought it all home.
An energized audience roared its approval. What could possibly follow? De la Salle came out one final time and promised something to calm us down. Her grave yet tender performance of the Bach / Busoni Chorale Prelude BWV 639, “I call to You,” did more than that. It put us back in touch with something like Debussy’s quiet yet exalted sense of Delphic wisdom. France and Germany (not to mention Italy and Greece) seemed to join and shine in her sensitive yet powerful hands.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, who is utterly in awe of most of the works on this program and who has spent many happy hours wrestling with them himself.
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