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.