Fort Worth — Part of the magic of the PianoTexas International Academy and Festival is the great variety of world-class pianists that Artistic Director Tamás Ungár brings to Fort Worth every summer. Texas Christian University's PepsiCo Hall is an excellent venue for a recital in that you can closely observe the pianist from almost any seat in the house.
This variety was underlined recently. It is hard to imagine a bigger contrast than the two recitals covered in this review. Alexander Shtarkman's recital on June 17 was a study in concentration, precision and proportion. On June 28, Hung-Kuan Chen played as though he was entertaining us in his living room and therefore felt free to experiment.
Let's start with Shtarkman. He walked onstage ramrod-straight without a hint of a smile, gave a brief nod to acknowledge the applause, sat down and immediately started his program. It was as cool an entrance as possible. When added to the overly air-conditioned PepsiCo Hall, we all wished for a sweater. This is not to say that an artist should enter all smiles and bonhomie, but some warmth reassures the audience.
Hung-Kuan Chen entered like a kindly father figure, warmly smiling yet reserved. His almost shoulder-length gray-streaked hair was parted in the middle with side-swept bangs that frequently came down over his face like a curtain. Shtarkman avoids this problem with a completely bare head à la Patrick Stewart and Andre Agassi. The difference in physicality is mentioned because it proved to be an indicator of their playing style and approach to the music as well.
Both are distinguished pianists with long résumés listing prizes in international competitions. As is the case these days, a select group of young virtuoso pianists follow each other around the world competing against each other. Chen made the rounds a generation behind Shtarkman but both trod the same path. Shtarkman won the 1995 Busoni International Piano Competition; Chen took second prize in the 1982 Busoni. Shtarkman took fourth prize in the 1989 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. In 1985, Chen did not make it to the finals in the seventh Cliburn, but returned to serve on the jury of the 13th Cliburn in 2009.
Shtarkman was more impressive as his program processed. He played two of Mozart's sonatas: B Flat Major K 570 and C Major Sonata K 545. Both pieces were cleanly played, demonstrating precise and nimble fingers. The fast staccato runs were so crisp that we were aware of the negative space between the notes. Remarkable.
The C Major Sonata is one of Mozart's universally known works and the pride of many a beginning pianist, once they learned their scales. It is the soul of simplicity; Mozart said it was for beginners. But its considerable difficulties lie hidden, only to be released in the hands of a great artist. For the most part, Shtarkman had it right. The long sustained melodies in the right hand benefited from superb finger legato, but occasionally the Alberti bass accompaniment in the left hand rose to the same level instead of staying just under, as a fine collaborative pianist would do (if the two parts were so distributed). Accompanying oneself is very difficult and it is found throughout this “easy” sonata.
This was not a problem in the slow movement where the figure in his left hand accompaniment was much more accommodating. This gorgeous efferimal movement, with its long, searching and melodic single-note material, requires great expression. This is Mozart at his most operatic. His new “Viennese” Stein piano allowed greater expression and dynamic shape than all of its predecessors. Mozart loved it. The Marriage of Figaro, a treasure trove of such melodies, dates from two years earlier.
Shtarkman did not do this. He played the melody much like the more ordinary one, made of triads and scales, that opens the sonata. To make matters worse, he took all the repeats, without saying anything new the second time through. It felt interminable. The last movement sparkled and was beautifully played, but it was too serious. Mozart was a charming rascal whose music, full of winks and sly grins, frequently reflects his “let's have some fun” attitude and the last movement of this “simple” sonata is a great example.
Chen also played Mozart—a charming little suite, the Rondo in A minor K 511 and the A minor sonata K 310. Taking just the opposite approach, rubato ran rampant. Chen played everything with great expression and he was completely immersed in the music. Although it was subtle, every phrase was evident in his expression and body language. The problem was that it was too much of a good thing. Chen made ritards to some phrases that were so extreme that notes became isolated events, losing their role as members of a melodic phrase.
That given, there was plenty on the positive side of the ledger. Chen has an impeccable sense of the architecture, starting with the phrase—the building block of the structure. He fabricates a movement out of the phrases and a sonata out of the movements— all carefully constructed. Except for his hyperbolized ritards, Mozart rarely sounded better.
Shtarkman tossed a Liszt showpiece in the mix of the first half, which would have been better at the end of the program. This being all about Mozart, he played Liszt's mind-bogglingly difficult Fantasie on two themes from the Marriage of Figaro. (What a vulgar piece!) But here, you could understand how this prize-winning pianist can wow an audience. Within his tightly controlled manner, he took it very fast and with some surprising degree of abandonment, taking risks that worked more often than not. It was a wild ride.
Chen ended with Schubert's magnificent C minor sonata D 938 and, while hardly the same as Lisztian fireworks, we got a glimpse of his prodigious technique as the work progressed. Musically, he reveled in Schubert's harmonic surprises, underlining them with his approach. Minimal use of the sustaining pedal kept things clear, but he didn't hesitate to use to great effect where appropriate. He created quite a ghostly effect with the chromatic passage than leads to the recapitulation of the first movement.
The second movement suffered from terminal ritarditis, but the last movement was every bit as exciting as Shtarkman's Liszt. Chen even rose up off of the bench for added oomph and delivered a few foot stomps in his excitement.
Both played sleepy encores.
While it is a given that PianoTexas picks a composer each summer around which to base programming, this year Mozart, absolutely nothing written after 1843 appeared. There was one stunning exception. Sean Chen gave a definitive performance of Copland's Piano Variations, which was highly relevant to the series of recitals considering how “classical” they are, even in their atonal garb. Ungár hinted about a celebration of Chopin next summer. Let's hope that some modern Chopin-influenced nocturnes show up. There are some nice ones by composers from Poulenc to Lowell Lieberman.