The Ukrainian-American pianist Mykola Suk appeared at Seully Hall Tuesday, November 8th, in a program, “Homage to Liszt,” as part of Boston Conservatory’s Piano Masters Series. The opening piece, Sigismond Thalberg’s Fantaisie sur l’opera “Moise” de Rossini was the composer’s weapon in his famous musical duel with Liszt. Under the robust hands of Suk it sounded as if there were more to it than what the Thalberg had put into the notes.
Two Andantes entitled Dedication to Franz Liszt, composed in 1998 by a fellow Ukrainian and contemporary of Suk, Valentin Silvestrov, allowed for a short respite from the real world of Liszt through Suk’s ultra-faint, minimalist misting. (Sylvestrov has said, “I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists.”)
In the four programmed pieces of Franz Liszt, Suk celebrated each with his own observably unbounded dedication. In the end, though, more about the pianist, himself, became known than did the psychological, literary and musical quest of Liszt’s compositions themselves. Controlled abandon and deliberate phrasing were some of the means to which the pianist turned. One might believe that such an approach as this might be the perfect antidote for iciness and edginess in the darker side of the Hungarian Romantic pianist-composer’s music. Interestingly, Suk’s pedaling injected a warm and rounded tone.
“Funérailles” from the Harmonies Poétiques et Réligieuses began the evening’s homage in striking fashion, the opening bass register tolling of bells followed by well-directed dirges, both pointedly metrical. The forming, then dissolving dance references in Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in c-sharp minor also stood out as welcome as sunshine briefly peeking through a cloud-filled sky.
As to the taking and giving back of time —rubato— that is fundamental to the style, if not an integral interpretative means of that era, Suk seems to have worked out a plan for guiding the ebb and flow of melody as a foreseeable, calculable experience. In the Thalberg Fantaisie, Suk’s right hand lagged a tad behind the left, allowing the melody to float above the accompanying bass notes and chords. Soon, the unwavering lag could not stand the test of time, revealing itself as a tool, rather than as a natural expressiveness or sense of the free and spontaneous. Impetuousness, though, Suk conveyed often; scale work and arpeggios alike whizzed by the ear so fast that the very meaning of the music changed, if not evolved, into blurriness.
High register bells, softer arpeggios and extended harmonies of “Les cloches de Genève” from the Années de pèlerinage, the ninth piece from the first suite (Switzerland), resounded in a loveliness of ringing. As with the rest of the program, in the “Fantasia quasi Sonata: Après une lecture du Dante” from the Années de pèlerinage, second book (Italy), there were sudden, sometimes searing shifts to surprise. In contrast, there were booming, roaring surfaces spun out to overwhelm. Tenderness appeared, as well, but no dreaming.
As I said in the beginning of this review, I was chiefly aware of Suk as a pianist in possession of extensive piano technique, unlimited power and, apparently, extraordinary endurance. The eighteen-minute Dante sonata is formidable in its demands. Mykola Suk’s undeniable piano passion filled Seully Hall — he could hardly wait for the applause to end so that he could sit down at the keyboard and begin playing immediately, without a breath or a moment of thought. Hell and heaven, terror, dread, strange cries and the rest of the tone poem of Liszt shadowed the Hall more symbolically than realistically.
Two encores of Liszt works ended the homage : Transcendental Etude no. 10 in f minor and Hungarian Rhapsody no. 3.