Fort Worth — The 2020 Cliburn Festival, Beethoven at 250, was a series of five concerts in celebration of his 250th birthday. All that was missing was the cake, but the fire department probably wouldn’t allow 250 candles to be lit in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Instead, the fire came from the excellent performances of a wide variety of his music in the third concert (2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29), including a sonata, a song cycle, and ending with a compositional tour de force set of variations.
The program opened with Beethoven’s humble Piano Sonata No. 24 in F sharp, Op. 78, and ended with his hourlong, astonishing Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, his last work for piano (except for a few trifles). In between, we heard his Romance for Violin and Orchestra No. 2 in F major, Op. 50, in a piano reduction of the orchestral score and arranged for solo viola instead of the originally intended violin; as well as his rarely heard but groundbreaking song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), Op. 98.
In fact, the entire concert was entitled “Beloved,” referring to the composer’s unknown but oft speculated about “Immortal Beloved.” After his death, his assistant discovered a hidden, never-sent 10-page love letter to this unidentified “immortal beloved.” Musicologists, who love such arcane matters, have proposed candidates and most of the works on this program were dedicated to a few of them, including a kinfolk circle-crush on a woman, her sister and a cousin.
This being the Cliburn, we also heard a collection of top-ranked, prize-winning young pianists: Sean Chen, the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition third-place winner; Kenny Broberg, silver medalist at the 2017 Cliburn; and newcomer, Filippo Gorini, winner of both the first and audience favorite prizes in the 2015 Telekom-Beethoven International Competition in Bonn, Germany.
Chen’s sensitive reading of the Beethoven Sonata was a study in subtle contrasts. The thoughtfully played, but very short, introduction was performed in such a way as to prepare us for the entire work, a difficult job to accomplish in four slow measures. He played the sonata without the use of the sustaining pedal in all of the multitudinous staccato passages, saving that effect for some appropriately selected phrases. Thus, he used his range of attacks as a musical differentiator, as well as carefully contrasted dynamics and legato passages. He brought out some usually hidden voices and kept the overall cheery mood throughout.
Beethoven’s “Romance” didn’t suffer one whit in its move from violin to the more modest but richer sound of Abigail Rojansky’s viola. She is the violist of the Verona Quartet, currently in residence at the Juilliard School in New York City. Sean Chen remained at the keyboard. As it turned out, these two artists seemed to be perfectly matched and had a similar view of the piece. Of course, Chen proved his worth as a collaborative pianist as a part of his placing as a Cliburn finalist. This piece is frequently taken too slowly, but the pair kept it light on its feet by not over-romancing it. Her use of the bow gets a special kudo and Chen did his best to match her with his phrasing. It was a lovely amuse-bouche between all of the more seriously conceived music.
This brought us to To the Distant Beloved, Op. 98. Just seeing the name of the superb and locally based baritone David Grogan on the program assured us of a marvelous performance. And paired with the perceptive pianist Kenny Broberg, that is exactly what we got. I cannot remember a better performance that fully realized all of the mood changes in this widely varied work. Grogan, who has a perfectly focused voice that can rise to operatic heights, carefully kept it within the confines appropriate for the recital setting and the smallish room. Broberg was always with him and supportive, skillfully setting up the next phrases with his in-between solo passages.
After intermission, the amazing set of the 33 variations Beethoven wrote on Diabelli’s unremarkable little waltz was given another milestone performance by the young and brilliant Filippo Gorini. He released his debut CD featuring this very piece and, hearing it live, there is little wonder about that decision.
Instead of the usual dazzle of the virtuosic parts, he impressed with the softest and most lyrical parts. A good example of his approach occurred in the second variation. His barely audible staccato playing achieved the miracle of being the exact same pianissimo volume all the way through it. It was almost Mendelssohnian in execution. Finger legato took the lead in the fourth variation, which he interrupted with the fanfare of the fifth one. All of the dotted rhythms, regularly slightly slouched, were crisp throughout. The big fugue at the end was remarkable for the fact that the fugue theme was clearly heard every time it was introduced, no matter what else was going on. He brought it to a serene close. Remarkable.