On Tuesday night, February 8, Antonio Pompa-Baldi played an expansive program as part of the Piano Masters Series at Boston Conservatory. This intimate affair took place in Seully Hall, which sits on the fourth floor and holds just over one hundred seats. Pompa-Baldi, a silver medalist at the Van Cliburn Competition, displayed both technical ability and sensitive musicianship in this ambitious program that featured familiar works from Schubert and Chopin, as well as lesser-known works by Edward Grieg and Giuseppe Martucci.
Known as a champion of Grieg’s piano works, Pompa-Baldi opened the evening with Grieg’s Sonata in E minor, op. 7. This work retains the traditional four-movement format, yet includes a distinctly Scandinavian temperament. The first two movements range from a plaintive, yet martial opening to a lyrical second movement, which features rolling accompaniments well suited to the piano. The third movement is a dark and somber interpretation of a Minuet, a courtly dance in the time of Haydn, which Beethoven soon thereafter transformed; and Pompa-Baldi convincingly brought out its dark and sinister mood. If you’re familiar with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, think more of the “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and less of “Morning Mood.”
The next work on the program, Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie, op. 61, required an immediate change in mood. The title refers to its roots: Polonaise is a French designation for Poland, Chopin’s native country; and Fantaisie implies a loosely structured musical form. Pompa-Baldi excelled at the delicate, improvisatory nature of this work: the intricate passagework, which featured an ascending arpeggio, required that each hand cross over the other, and the conclusion featured a shimmering, two-handed trill that he handled with ease. Pompa-Baldi made the Chopin sound seamless and intricate, even more so after the heavier work by Grieg.
Martucci’s Fantasia, op. 51, initially grabbed the audience’s attention with acrobatic flourishes, but yielded to a middle section of lyrical passages. In one sense, the first half of the program represented three statements on national character: Grieg’s Scandinavian darkness, Chopin’s Polish music seen through the eyes of a Frenchman, and Martucci’s Italian sense for the dramatic.
The second half of the program was organized around a different principle, the technique of variation. Schubert’s Impromptu in B-flat major, op. 142 appeared just as the Classical period was overtaken by the Romantic, and indeed, this work has a foot in both worlds. It is a theme-and-variations movement, Classical by nature, but also featuing an approach to harmony that is very much rooted in Romanticism. Pompa-Baldi exploited the dual personality of this work extraordinarily, with a sensitive rendering of the second variation, which sounds vaguely like a calliope, and with fantastic flourishes in the fifth variation.
Robert Schumann’s Carnaval, op. 9, a famously difficult work, has twenty-one movements representing different characters –– both real and fictional –– in Schumann’s life. Some of the most notable appearances are: Chopin (#13), Clara Wieck (#12), and Paganni (#17); as well as fictional characters like Eusebius and Florestan, Schumann’s impetuous and idyllic alter egos (#5 and #6), and Pierrot and Arlequin, stock characters from Commedia dell’arte (#2 and #3). Evoking this coterie of subjects is difficult, yet Pompa-Baldi clearly enjoyed the challenge. At each movement, his face contorted like he was donning the masks of his characters, yet he was able to pry distinct, and often beautiful, sounds from the keyboard.
The Piano Masters Series continues throughout the semester: André LaPlante plays Schubert and Liszt on March 8, and Jung-Ja Kim plays Schubert and Rachmaninoff on April 12. Although Boston Conservatory sometimes falls under the shadow of that “other” Conservatory just around the corner, this Piano Masters Series should be required listening for students of all ages no matter your academic standing.
Alex Ludwig holds a Ph. D. in Musicology from Brandeis University and is the Secretary of the Haydn Society of North America.