Fort Worth — There was quite a lot of anticipation in the packed house on Thursday as the Cliburn Foundation presented French pianist David Fray at Fort Worth’s Renzo Piano Pavilion at the Kimbell Art Museum. Many distinguished pianists were in the audience, eager to make a judgment; the simply curious were also in attendance. There was some electricity in the air as the lanky, longhaired, very young-looking pianist took the stage.
In a world full of brilliant pianists, the clamor for credence can be very loud indeed. Skimpy dresses, outlandish socks, bringing your own chair, sitting low at the keyboard, and erudite but distorted interpretations are just a few devices that have been used, successfully, in recent times. David Fray is different in that he minimizes the headline-grabbing aspects of his music and his life and specializes in little flashes of individuality instead.
As he said to Matthew Gurewitsch in an interview for his blog beyondcriticism.com in January 2010, “How grey the landscape must be that the press would single out my tiny touches of individuality as eccentricities!”
Indeed, his “eccentricities” are indeed small but noticeable. He hunches over the keyboard, letting his Prince Valiant hairstyle fall Chopinesque over his face and he hums along with his playing — to name a few.
Should he so desire, he could trumpet the fact that he is married to the international superstar Maestro Ricardo Muti’s daughter or brag about the wall full of prizes: the Diploma of Outstanding Merit at the Fifth International Hamamatsu Competition in Japan, the Jeune soliste de l’année (Young Soloist of the Year) award, as well as second grand prize at the at the 2004 Montreal International Music Competition.
But Fray is an odd combination of the audacious and the unassertive. His reputation is that of a “romantic,” yet the actual performance we heard was far from heart-rending. His clear technique eschewed grand gestures while still delivering on the big moments. His carefully thought out interpretations all made musical sense and led the audience from the start to the ultimate goal of the last note. He didn’t drop our interest for even a moment.
On the downside, the program could have been presented more than 200 hundred years ago without changing a thing. For a pianist whose first recording paired the best of the Baroque and Bach with the most modern of modernists, Boulez, his ultra conservative program was a disappointment. Would that we had heard him play just such such juxtaposition!
Such was not the case. Instead, we heard Bach and Beethoven—two composers that hardly suffer from lack of performances and whose music has been deeply plumbed frequently. It is virtually impossible to breathe anything new to the works of these two composers without resorting to distortion.
Thus, it was surprising to hear these performances. Fray didn’t try to bring anything “new.” Instead, he sought out the musical architecture of what he played and presented the music of both composers in a simplified and direct manner. We didn’t hear Fray’s Bach or Beethoven; we heard Bach’s Bach and Beethoven’s Beethoven.
Fray dedicated the first half to Book One of Bach’s seminal work The Well-Tempered Clavier, which is familiar to piano students everywhere.
Moment of Geek: Before 1700 or so, tuning instruments with fixed pitches (such as the harpsichord or organ) was done in such a way as to make the keys with lots of sharps or flats sound completely out of tune. In order to make the fifths sound in tune in the simpler keys, things went awry in the more complex ones. At the time this was called quarter-comma meantone. A predecessor of Bach, Andreas Werckmeister is credited with coming up with a better idea—a compromise, as it were. If you cheated a little bit on every note and tuned all of the enharmonic notes the same, every key would be slightly out of tune, but hardly noticeable, and the rewards great.
All keys were now accessible and so Bach wrote a series of preludes and fugues in all 12 keys to prove the point. He underlined by juxtaposing two preludes—one in E-flat minor and the other in the enharmonic key of D-sharp minor.
(All notes are enharmonic: meaning that, for example, D-flat and a C-sharp are the same note on a keyboard, but act different in different keys. In some keys, a C-sharp needs to be slightly higher than a D-flat and vice versa. Instrumentalists and singers do this all the time instinctively, but a piano cannot adjust.)
These pieces where probably not meant to be played one after the other, which Fray did. But his performance was revelatory. The preludes are not regular, such as having the same number of measures or in the same style for that matter. The fugues use two, three, four and five contrapuntal voices. As Fray moved from one to the other, he tied these disparate works together in such a manner as to make this odd collection into one piece. He accomplished this by how he played them—letting one lead to the other and the stylistic differences feel like “development” rather than contrast.
He also tried to play Bach’s work in a historically accurate manner. He used practically no sustaining pedal (Bach’s harpsichord didn’t have such a thing) and kept his playing within Baroque bounds. Indeed, his reputation as a romantic peeked out in his use of dynamics and phrasing. However, had he done the opposite, a cool execution of all of the notes, he would have left out out any expression that he felt Bach intended (had it been possible on the instruments of his day).
For the second half, Fray paired an early Beethoven sonata (No. 5 in C-Minor, Op. 10, No. 1) with a later one (Sonata No. 23 in F-Minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”). Both received the gift of his impeccable technique and sure musical sensibilities.
The first one was played with crystalline clarity. He used some sustaining pedal, but not much. His approach was to simplify where he could rather than add a layer of seriousness—or overt Beethovenism. The second movement had a lovely spot where he accompanied himself, letting the melody wander in his right hand while offering a sympathetic accompaniment in his left hand. The third movement was fast, but didn’t sound rushed.
In the later sonata, Fray brought an erudite use of the sustaining pedal to the task. He would sustain passages that created a single harmony but released it the moment the music changed. Many play this sonata with a big helping of exuberance, but Fray eschewed such an approach, letting the music speak for itself.
He also didn’t overplay the piano. He used his whole body to make the loud spots resound without banging. His performances had drama, but were not dramatic. He evidences a strong sense of the musical line and breathed with it as though he were a singer. (Perhaps his humming along helped with that).
Fray was not what most of us expected: another young gun out to prove his nimble fingers and other abilities. We were pleasantly surprised to hear a thoughtful artist, whether you agree with everything he did, who gave a carefully thought-out performance of Bach and Beethoven.
Would that we had heard what he would do with Boulez.