in: Reviews

April 18, 2009

Fine Choices by Pianist Bempéchat for Haydn, Schubert Program

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Some of the most poorly-advertised concerts turn out to be among the best. The recital entitled “Memento Mori” on April 17 at the Pusey Room of Harvard’s Memorial Church had an audience of 11, but they were richly rewarded. Paul-André Bempéchat, pianist and musicologist, a Canadian citizen formerly resident in Brookline, has played in and around Boston for two decades and more and went so far as to get a D.M.A. at Boston University, even though he has played solo recitals and concerto engagements all over the world. Currently, he is an affiliate of the Harvard Center for European Studies. We may expect in the near future his recording of piano works by the Breton-French composer Jean Cras (1879-1932), as well as his comprehensive study of Cras’ life and works, to be published this summer by Ashgate Press.

Bempéchat’s program consisted of two sonatas by Haydn, Sonata no. 33 in C minor, Hob. XVI/20, composed in 1771-72, and Sonata no. 58 in C major, Hob. XVI/48, composed in 1789, and one by Schubert, composed in 1828. Few of Haydn’s sonatas are in the minor mode, but this one, in three movements, was full of engaging drama and a seemingly endless supply of surprises, especially in the finale. It fit perfectly with the more familiar C major Sonata, in two movements, including the familiar Presto rondo that is often separately anthologized. I think that Beethoven was possibly influenced by Haydn’s melodically rich and expressive Andante con espressione in his F major Sonata, op. 54, but this may be just my rumination about the opening low-register gestures in both works. Bempéchat’s playing was at every moment solidly assertive, crisp, and full of joy.

After the intermission came the great Sonata in B-flat major, D 960, composed during the last months of Schubert’s life. I had heard Bempéchat play this work outstandingly before, and this performance was equally memorable. It is one of Schubert’s longest sonatas in performance time, well over half an hour, and the first two movements are dominated by regular but never tiring accompanimental patterns supporting serenely beautiful melodies, like songs without words. The slow movement of this sonata, in C-sharp minor ending in major, is harmonically dramatic and dominated by a slow-moving cantabile theme, very comparable in pace to the second movement of the great C major Quintet for strings, D 956, composed at about the same time. What Schumann referred to as “heavenly length” in Schubert’s last works is also a kind of unearthly peace. The minuet that followed, two pages long, provided just the right contrast before the expansive rondo finale. The finale begins with a single sustained octave, like the finale of the C major Sonata for piano four hands (known as the “Grand Duo,” D 812, composed 1824), but the more usual comparison of this finale is with that of Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 130 in the same key, beginning with the same harmony (V\ii). Paul Bempéchat’s deeply felt performance was beyond words.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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