Pianist Katherine Chi appeared at the Gardner Museum on Sunday April 26 with a different kind of line up. A refreshing one at that, it included the stoic to the grandiose-Boulez to Busoni. Interestingly, Chi was a 1998 Busoni International Piano Competition prizewinner. Many may not know, however, that she garnered the 1991 Lili Boulanger Memorial Prize conferred on her by the Boston-based Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, Inc.
Sonata No. 1, by a 19-year-old Pierre Boulez, is not something you often bump into at concerts these days in Boston. Even a half-century later it can intimidate the mind, if not confuse the ear. While Chi had the score to look at, she rarely did. How can anyone remember so many notes and rhythms falling in patterns way beyond those found in music before the 20th century, never mind attach a range of dynamics from very soft to very loud in an assortment of most unusual ways?
Chi did a fairly good job of it. Impressive dexterity in her calculations and in their execution was in striking evidence throughout the demanding 10-minute work. Pointillism, not gesture, dominated Chi’s approach, a static state emerging instead of one more forward-moving. Dare it be said that the pleasant and the painful, albeit stoically observed, find their way in this smart and serious serialist’s modernisms? Such went missing.
At the other end of the spectrum comes the showman extraordinaire of the piano, Ferruccio Busoni. Fantasie on Two Motives from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, probably just as rarely heard these days as Boulez, allowed Katherine Chi to really show her stuff. High-speed arpeggios, even higher speed cascades of handfuls of sounds along with mammoth fistfuls of-you name it-to be negotiated over the extent of the keyboard requiring monstrous levels of volume impressed the audience. How did she muster all of this strength and velocity?
There were enormous buildups to the varied iterations of the Mozart themes. There was the false cadence, or close, that showed up again and again-sometimes single cadences turned into multiple ones! Chi’s style of playing brought out the best and, perhaps inadvertently, the worst; but all the more power to her for programming the Fantasie.
Another Busoni piece, Fantasia nach J. S. Bach followed his transcription of Bach’s Chorale Prelude No. 5 Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ. Chi captured the opening move of the chorale in a quietly stunning way and achieved a high degree of clarity in both pieces.
Chi also chose to play three short pieces commemorating the death of Haydn composed 100 years after his death in 1809: Ravel’s Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn, Reynaldo Hahn’s Thème Varié sur le nom Haydn and Debussy’s Hommage à Haydn. This little Haydn set could well have been a first for most Boston concertgoers.
She was most at home with Hahn, moderating the volume just right. Both Ravel and Debussy were given gorgeous surfaces, except for some notes punched out. Of the three, it is the imitative nod to Haydn that flows so naturally into the irresistible sonorous universe of Ravel that truly leaves one in wonderment.
Like the Boulez sonata, Sonata No. 27 in E minor Op. 90 by Beethoven consists of but two movements. Chi took seriously most of the directions Beethoven laid down in his score. Hers is a strong sound but not a full one. Between the very loud and very soft there were few gradations. The tempo likewise remained in tow. Passages marked teneramente and dolce could be described as two-dimensional. Arrivals and departures in the music became the same.
Chi’s remarkable virtuosity and innovative programming were hallmarks of today’s concert.