The PianoSummer festival, now in its 16th year, was. Every July it brings an international group of piano students to SUNY New Paltz, where they each have the unique experience of taking lessons with every member of the piano faculty. Many PianoSummer events, including talks and master classes, are open to the public. And the festival presents four public concerts, including two by prominent visiting pianists.
Saturday evening, July 16, at 8 p.m., pianist Roberto Plano presented a concert in celebration of the 200th birthday anniversary of Franz Liszt at the school’s McKenna Theatre. His first half was a rarely heard Liszt oddity: Beethoven’s Second Symphony arranged for solo piano. Liszt arranged all the Beethoven Symphonies for solo piano, a real service at a time, when orchestral concerts were rare and seldom-included music of dead composers. I find these arrangements amazingly successful and engaging. They may not reproduce orchestral colors (although Liszt does his best to suggest them), but they are extremely faithful to Beethoven’s musical content. And they don’t sound like big Beethoven piano sonatas. They sound like symphonies.
These arrangements are not easy to play. Plano swept through the Second with excellent technical command. Although he used a bit too much pedal for ideal clarity sometimes, he played with fluency and amazing accuracy. He even had the sense to take the exposition repeat in the first movement. All that was missing was the kind of tonal variety that would have turned the performance into magic. Instead, his sound was rather gray and neutral, and the music, although vivid in most respects, remained earthbound.
In the only completely original Liszt works on the program, three excerpts from Années de Pèlerinage, Year 2, Plano played with more tonal and dynamic variety. He was extremely relaxed and lyrical in “Sposalizio,” appropriately somber in “Il Penseroso,” and jaunty in “Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa.” He also had all the facility needed for the famous “Rigoletto” Paraphrase and for “Reminiscences de ‘Norma.’” The performances showed some awareness of the vocal origins of the music, and they had a lot of mechanical excitement. Yes, he played all the notes, very fast and accurately. But the playing lacked the kind of color that could have relieved some of the bombastic qualities of the music.
Had the concert ended with the printed program, I would have written Plano off as a gifted but prosaic pianist. As an encore, he played Tarrega’s famous guitar tremolo etude, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, explaining that he had adapted it as little as possible and was basically playing the original guitar score on the piano. This was the most beautiful playing of the evening, with the kind of flexibility, charm, and – yes! – tonal color that made for a magical performance. I hope Plano can get more of these elements into his Liszt playing.
Next Saturday’s PianoSummer recital is by Jon Nakamatsu, and includes Brahms’s daunting Sonata No. 1 and more of Années de Pèlerinage Year 2.