in: Reviews

October 25, 2011

Thomas Pandolfi: the Spectacular and the Sublime

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Virginia-based pianist Thomas Pandolfi played Frederick Collection’s 1877 Érard in Ashburnham, on October, 23. The piano is described in detail described in detail in my review here, along with details about the Érard firm’s nearly 200-year history.

Pandolfi offered a carefully crafted and balanced program of works, all played from memory, featuring Franz Liszt (1811-1886) on the first half, in honor of the bicentennial of his birth the day before, and Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) on the second half, with the work preceding the intermission being Liszt’s Funerailles [Funeral Service] “October 1849,” No. 7 of his Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173, work that was composed following the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 by the Habsbergs, so it has a political significance, but also became Liszt’s de facto tribute to Chopin, who had died on 17 October, because it echoes the center of the latter’s Polonaise « héroique » in A-flat, Op. 53 (1842).  In the printed program, the work was the recital’s opener, and Pandolfi explained his reason for the last-minute switch, which also entailed replacing the scheduled concluding piano arrangement of the Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S. 110/1, (1859-‘61) with the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 [of 19] in c-sharp, (pub. 1853), S. 244/12, key signature that was featured throughout the program, and opening with it.

The program featured a sampling of the various compositional styles of both composers, and included some chestnuts of the repertoire along with some less frequently heard works of both.  It more or less alternated between virtuosic works, such as the aforementioned Hungarian Rhapsody, and quieter, more reflective ones, like the third [of 6] Consolation (Lento placido), (1849-’50), S. 172/3, in D-flat (same tone as c-sharp) that followed it.  This was followed by one of Liszt’s late works, which were totally different from his early showy virtuosic ones, although no less difficult, merely with a more discretely concealed virtuosity, and which foreshadow the music of Debussy and Ravel with their dissonances and modern harmonics, the first [of 4] Valse oubliée, S. 215/1 (1881).  This was followed by Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s lied “Widmung” [Dedication], S. 566 (1848), followed in turn by the second [of 6] Grande etude d’après Paganini, S. 141/2 (1851).  The arrangement of Franz Schubert’s “Der Müller und der Bach,” third of Liszt’s Sechs Müllerlieder [6 songs from Die Schöne Müllerin], S. 565/3 (1846) preceded Funerailles.

After the break, two of Chopin’s 21 Nocturnes, Nos. 2, Op. 9/2, in E-flat (1830-’32) and 4, Op. 15/1, in F (1847) alternated with two dance-form works, the Waltz No. 7 [of 19] in c-sharp, Op. 64/2 (1847) and the Mazurka No. 55 [of 59] in a, Op. 67/4 (1846).  The program concluded with three of his 24 Études: No. 4, Op. 10/4 (1828-32), No. 19, Op. 25/7, « Le violoncelle », and No. 24, Op. 25/12, « L’océan » (1832-36), the first two in c-sharp, the last in c.  Pandolfi rewarded his listeners’ standing ovations at intermission and at the conclusion by playing Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s (1860-191) Minuet in G, from his 6 Humoresques de Concert, Op. 41/2 (1886) and received yet another standing O.  Attentive readers will have noticed that, except for the late Liszt piece and the Paderewski, all of this music was written long before this powerful instrument was built, although Liszt in particular, who preferred Érard instruments throughout his touring years, and who is known to have put more than one out of commission, might well have dreamed of one capable of what this one can do, and which Pandolfi made it do so brilliantly.

Pandolfi played the Liszt works in what might well be characterized as the epitome of a Lisztian style, not holding back any energy in his approach to the keyboard in the virtuosic pieces and making extraordinary demands on the strings.  The instrument did not succumb!  On the contrary, it produced sounds that were both loud and pleasingly musical.  He was appropriately more restrained in the quieter ones and in all of the Chopin pieces, although he and the instrument produced a louder sound than would have Chopin or an equivalent instrument of his time.  He controlled the dynamics from fff, maybe even ffff to ppp superbly.  The mastery of the scores, the precision of the playing, and the finesse of the expression were all simply spectacular.  It was a truly bravura performance, both in the virtuosic and in the reflective pieces, yet one completely without gratuitous exaggerated display.

The brilliance of Pandolfi’s playing was significantly enhanced by his excellent spoken program notes in which he talked about the atmosphere, the style, and the structure of each piece, with occasional demonstrations that helped listeners understand and appreciate what they were learning.  Several acquaintances spoke directly to me about the lecture and I overheard yet others talking about it, a stark contrast with similar spoken notes by many other musicians.  In 2009 he had presented a program of mostly Liszt and Chopin on his first appearance here (that included the same Hungarian Rhapsody and the Chopin Polonaise that is echoed in Funerailles) with a Scriabin Nocturne opening the second half.  After that recital, he wrote a note to the Fredericks, according to Patricia Fredericks, in which he said that he had played all over the world and thought that this was the best piano he had ever played.  He certainly made Liszt sound better to me than I have ever heard him.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina, a professional journal, for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is currently a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College in Northampton.

 

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