in: Reviews

December 9, 2009

Bass Notes, Legato Tones at Boston Conservatory

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The relatively intimate confines of Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall were filled to bursting Tuesday evening, 8 December, for a solo recital given as part of the Conservatory’s Piano Masters Series. Faculty member Jonathan Bass took listeners on an ambitious chronological voyage sampling works from three centuries and four classical music periods. Yes, that’s Jonathan Bass, as opposed to his somewhat more well-known pianistic counterpart Jonathan Biss. I’ll admit to being initially confused.

Apparently requiring no light, ivory-tickling warm-up piece, Dr. Bass immediately plunged into J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in c minor, BWV 826. This meaty work is one of a suite of six, the third and final set of dance movements Bach composed, following the English and French Suites. The partitas are mature, complex compositions featuring JSB at his contrapuntal best. Bass’s performance was nuanced and elegant, with sophisticated, soft-edged interpretations that appropriately reflected the depth of the music. Purists may have taken umbrage with his somewhat liberal use of the damper pedal, as well as his broad tonal range that took full advantage of the myriad colors of the modern instrument, but I’m guessing Johann would have approved. Bass’s tempi were generally somewhat relaxed, and he did have a predilection for a very legato sound. This lack of portato occasionally resulted in a slight muddying of brisk passages, though this was somewhat offset by his extremely clear and exacting voicing.

Our ears were required to quickly shift gears as Dr. B. next presented us with a large dollop of Chopin, specifically Ballades 2 and 4, op. 38 and 52, and four of the 60 Mazurkas, op. 24. The ballades were solidly performed, highlighting Bass’s very secure technique. The playful mazurkas could have been a bit lighter and crisper; they tended towards the opaque. A few more dashes of rubato might also have spiced things up. Odd to say when speaking about works by Chopin, but this performance seemed almost too elegant. Or perhaps just a tad too studied.

As we moved into more contemporary territory, Bass seemed more in his element. His propensity for a legato sound and his “emotionally intellectual” approach were both more effective and more apropos in his realization of Claude Debussy’s Estampes (Prints) as was his well-delineated voicing and precise phrasing.

The hands-down highlight of the evening for this listener was the final piece, Samuel Barber’s Sonata, op. 26. This virtuosic work, composed in 1949, utilizes 12-tone serialism tempered by Barber’s signature lyricism. Angular yet melodic, with more than a passing whiff of Ginastera, this multifaceted sonata was given an exciting rendition in the capable hands of Bass. The heavily syncopated final Fuga was especially electrifying, and Bass tossed it off with aplomb. Throughout the technical fireworks, his talent for accentuating the melody line never wavered. Performer, audience, and Steinway were given a thorough workout, leaving the performer beaming, audience reveling, and Steinway quivering. This musical exclamation point was followed by a full-stop encore: Chopin’s “Cello” etude, op. 25, no. 7.

Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.

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