Isn't it romantic?

The 18th and 19th centuries intersect in two piano recitals.

An early-music hard-liner might view baroque and romantic performance styles as mutually exclusive, and claim that conventions appropriate for the performance of 19th-century music invariably distort when applied to 18th-century works. But two piano recitals last week revealed some interesting points of contact between the two styles, which complicate the question of "authenticity," especially in the realm of keyboard performance.

Craig Sheppard

Benaroya Recital Hall, January 19

Awadagin Pratt

Meany Hall, January 20

A taste for the monumental, for example, is a hallmark of both musical eras. As pianist Awadagin Pratt demonstrated at his recital last week, a similar approach can work for both a grand statement like Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor and Brahms' equally grand Variations and Fugue spun from a Handel theme. Pratt de-emphasized the differences among Brahms' 25 variations, indulging in few extremes of tempo, volume, and timbre, which pulled them all together into a single, imposing edifice. In the Bach, Pratt's own piano transcription of a work originally written for organ, he passed over opportunities for bravura display that might have called attention to themselves and taken away from the sweeping unity of the whole; octave passages on either hand, for example, came off as lyrical rather than flashy or rhetorical.

One might think of rhythmic freedom as a strictly romantic trait. But Craig Sheppard, in his all-baroque recital the night before (a Handel suite and chaconne, five Scarlatti sonatas, and Bach's Goldberg Variations), showed what a large role it also played in that era's keyboard style. There's a strong dance influence in 18th-century music—the traditional baroque suite is made of various dances, each with its own rhythmic fingerprint—but there's also a strong influence of improvisation, which thrives on caprice (bar lines? what bar lines?). Sheppard and I, though, disagreed at least once on this dance vs. improv distinction. One of the variations in the middle of the Goldberg takes the form of a French overture: a fast fugal section prefaced by a slow marchlike introduction (as in the overture to Handel's Messiah)—nothing if not stately and measured. But Sheppard, curiously enough, preferred to dissolve this introduction into a pulseless chaos of trills.

Attending to the larger unified struc- ture is one way of dealing with a multi- movement work like these variations; in contrast is the baroque theory of Affektenlehre, an aesthetic doctrine that considers each musical movement a discrete, vividly rendered crystallization of a single mood. Sheppard gave a marvelous reading of the Goldberg Variations as a set of individual and picturesque character pieces, ranging from a near-manic exuberance to the profoundest despair. He clarified the parallels between these 30 variations and the brief, single-movement sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, both full of snappy ornaments, dexterous hand crossings, and operatic melodies.

The romantics, of course, also cultivated the character piece. One of the greatest of all suites for piano, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, made up the second half of Pratt's recital. These 16 vignettes, unprecedented in their descriptive realism, were inspired by a series of paintings and drawings by Mussorgsky's friend Victor Hartmann. Regardless of the scene being depicted—the atmospheric "Old Castle," the playful "Tuileries," the bardic cantillation that opens "Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle," the ferocious "Hut on Fowl's Legs," or even the more neutral character of the interspersed "Promenade" movements that serve as a framing device for the others—Pratt gave them all a very precious, unusually soft treatment, and much of the music sounded unfocused. There were moments that fell attractively on the ear, like the great bell chords that resound in the climactic "The Great Gate of Kiev," but overall Mussorgsky's sonic imagination got a bit short-changed.

 
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