The Gardner Museum presented 23-year old French pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuburger, on Sunday April 5. Tieless, in a tux with a mauve shirt, Neuburger headed straight to the piano for the Italian Concerto in F Major. And with this, the opening piece on his program, the reticent young Frenchman rocketed off into Bach. It was as natural and as clear as the sky could be blue on one of these perfect April afternoons. Accents, like crisp currents of wind, unambiguously declaimed arrivals and departures.
There was not a lot of body movement—that was yet to come. But there was enough, and it was a joy to watch while listening. The Bach pulsated forward, evenly in time to the forward movements of his upper body. There were no rhythmic tricks, just straight ahead determination in both outer movements, Allegro and Presto. Left and right hand each took simple, animated, and decisive directions.
A bit difficult to follow, though, was the long monologue which he delivered in the Andante. All the parts fell into place—exceptions being some wondrous sleight-of-hand cadences. Perhaps if I heard him play this again, I might be able to hear exactly what he has discovered. I say this, because everything else he played could not have been clearer.
His playing tells stories and has a beautiful finish to it. Under his hands, Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, M. 21 went far beyond the melodramatic representation sometimes heard in this piece. Lucidity prevailed. Franckian harmonies and their complementary melodies became emotionally charged. It was a marvel imagining how this jeune homme could pull together all the plot’s threads as maturely as he did.
What he did in the Chorale was marvelous. Beyond conceiving a Franckian state, Neuburger alluded to Bach with chorale type features: pointed soprano, supporting bass, and harmony in between, all of this done, by the way, making use of nearly the entire range of the keyboard.
His prodigious energies as a performer knocked us off of our feet with a tour-de-force, La Valse in solo piano version by Maurice Ravel. Starting ever-so-faintly with low rumblings, he spliced together one emerging musical image after another, casting Ravel’s impressionistic fragments as aural cinematography. All those seated on the second floor of the historic Gardner Museum followed Neuberger’s blink-of-an-eye moves. He was lightning speed quick, whooshing from tender to ecstatic; sure, it seemed, of how to carry us away. He excited us every step of the way, image by image, then asked us to join him in frenzy only discipline combined with an exceptional sense of the ballet can bring on.
Mervellieux, exclaimed the audience!
The programming of this recital could not have been smarter, and Neuburger wanted to keep the momentum going. With gentle hand motions he politely signaled an end to our exuberant applause from the ether—where he had taken us!
And no sooner had the intermission begun than the lights began flickering on and off, signaling us back to our seats. And there was Neuburger, all ready to begin Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35.
Now, his body and his piano were in fully synchronized motion. Here was a 23-year old’s telling of an old story, one we thought we had heard many times over (so how he could he tell us any better?). We remember that Chopin, himself, was not all that much older when he penned this life and death probe.
Jean-Frédéric Neuburger held us on high ground, never yielding to the sentimentalized and the overly dramatic. He is an authentic and blossoming original performer. He brought his program to a pinnacle of story-telling as clear and as deep as the April sky.
Together, he and the piano are a marvel!
The program over, and after a moment of reflection, the young Neuburger chose to play Debussy’s first Arabesque, echoing the earlier balletic La Valse.