Nelson Goerner review: He has the technology

Portland Piano International recitalist is master of extremes in music by Beethoven, Schumann and Handel


During the 1817 Christmas season, English piano manufacturer John Broadwood & Sons, as much a technology innovator in those days as Apple or Google is in ours, sent Ludwig van Beethoven one of their top-of-the-line pianos as a gift, complete with a laudatory engraved inscription in Latin.

As luck would have it, Beethoven was working on the big piano sonata that would eventually be published as his op. 106. Although it’s unclear, due to his advancing deafness, how much he could directly appreciate the piano’s features, he praised it enthusiastically to his friends and associates. Finally, he had an instrument that he felt measured up to the range of his genius.  It can hardly be coincidence that the sonata became the magnum opus we know today simply as “The Hammerklavier” – the German name then current for the piano, that celebrated its advanced mechanisms much as today’s “smartphone” is distinguished from yesterday’s mere “phone.” It turned out by far the longest and most difficult piano work of the time, and even today is considered a touchstone of pianistic virtuosity.

Portland Piano International brought Nelson Goerner to Oregon in November. Photo: Richard Brase.

Many classical music fans would count themselves lucky to hear two outstanding live performances of the sonata in their lifetimes. Here in Portland, we’re fortunate indeed, because thanks to Portland Piano International we’ve now had the opportunity to hear two in the same year. As I wrote in May, Murray Perahia wowed a Schnitzer Concert Hall audience with his version, and the first Saturday in December, those fortunate enough to be part of a relatively small audience at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall heard Nelson Goerner’s quite different but just as accomplished version. They were like two brothers: Perahia the serious one, recounting an epic from his own world, and Goerner the sunnier one, giving the crowd an exalted song and dance, something he senses they’ll love.

At first, Goerner gave away no hints how it might go. The Argentine-born Swiss pianist’s opening number, George Frideric Handel’s early 18th-century “Chaconne” – Beethoven would have called them Variations – “in G major” HWV 435, came across as a pleasant and busy essay of the period that would likely sound more impressive on the older technology instrument (a harpsichord) it was written for.

Robert Schumann’s 1837 “Dances from the League of David (Davidsbündlertänze)” was written just ten years after Beethoven’s death, but it’s a world of fantasy away from the music of the “Hammerklavier.” Gone is the titan wrestling with deep questions of musical form, replaced by a one-man show of colorful characters. Schumann’s “League of David” was a made-up inner circle of music cognoscenti revolving around the characters Florestan and Eusebius, who represented two extremes in Schumann’s own psyche. Eusebius was intellectual, precise, thoughtful, daydreaming, while Florestan was all action, impulsive, outgoing and adventurous.

Schumann left notations that suggest Florestan and Eusebius should get equal say in the Dances, but there was more Eusebius in Goerner’s precise yet lyrical performance. Unfortunately the most sublime moment in the entire work, where, after all musical loose ends are wrapped up, a blissful Eusebian afterthought takes off apparently in the wrong key, was ruined by a clueless cougher. Nonetheless, in dance after dance, I felt myself beguiled back to a simpler time, when music seemed to have all the answers, when I was surrounded by the warmth of family and school friends and my head was filled with hopes and dreams of the future.  No doubt the sweet directness of Goerner’s interpretation created a kind of intimacy that opened up such memory lanes.

Drama and Suspense

Eusebius’ sensitivity informed Goerner’s Beethoven too, notably in his particularly harmonious way with passages that use the extreme ends of the piano simultaneously, and in passages the composer specifically marked to reverberate by holding down the damper pedal throughout. The former can sometimes sound cartoonish and the latter muddy and unfocused, but Goerner had no such problems. In particular, his pedaling at the end of the first movement created a fittingly grand finish to one of Beethoven’s most exuberantly massive essays in sonata form.

But Florestan could not be kept in the background. He burst out in the beginning and ending sections of the antic scherzo, where Goerner somehow evoked the chuckling of a madman. Even in the languishing slow movement, he notably animated a bridge into a reprise of the unconsolable opening lament – a bridge that risks sounding like an undergraduate exercise in harmony – so that it became a vignette of drama and suspense. Most of all, Florestan’s spirit somehow permeated the most intellectual movement of the four, the final gargantuan yet high-spirited fugue, so that for the first time in my experience, it seemed to fly by and end almost too soon. And yet, Eusebius joined in too, for every detail was clear throughout.

Nelson Goerner performed at Portland State University. Photo: Richard Brase.

I went to congratulate Goerner on his performance, and though I had never noticed while he was on stage, in person I was reminded of what the great Soviet-era pianist Emil Gilels once said about his young compatriot Vladimir Ashkenazy: “He is small, but the grand piano is not too big for him. He does what he wants with it. Others who are big come to the piano, but it is too big for them.” Whether he comes to the piano, or as happened with Beethoven’s new instrument, the piano comes to him, Goerner does what he wants with it, and wonderfully well.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist.

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