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Lewin’s Grand Virtuoso Playing — No Playing Safe


One seldom has the feeling of listening to a performer from a bygone era, but I daresay many had this feeling at a piano recital by Michael Lewin at The Boston Conservatory on Tuesday, December 6. Part of the Conservatory’s Piano Masters Series, Lewin (who is also a faculty member there) was in his element presenting a program called “Liszt and His Circle” to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. This featured original music and arrangements by Franz Liszt, his students and associates.

We began with a look backwards: Alexander Siloti’s transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude in B Minor. After Siloti (a Russian student of Liszt) transposed the piece, reversed the hands, and discovered a hidden melody within it, it was virtually a different piece from what Bach conceived, but Lewin made a strong case for this somewhat uneasy hybrid of nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, with emphasis on the former.

The first Liszt piece heard was the celebrated Vallée d’Obermann. Étienne Pivert de Sénancour’s novel, Obermann, a source of solace and enlightenment for Liszt, was also the inspiration for this arch-romantic effusion that Lewin’s program notes characterized without exaggeration as a “tone poem.” Lewin’s tonal range was immense: a particularly prominent example was a passage of infernal bass roars followed by a pause (the pianist often held one breathless with dramatic silences) and then a section of celestial lightness in the upper reaches of the keyboard. The many sighing figures ached with Sehnsucht, heightened by generous rubato. The numerous virtuoso sections were played truly in the grand manner without a hint of “playing it safe.”

The other revolutionary pianist/composer of the era with whom Liszt had a mutual admiration society was Frédéric Chopin, represented here by two études from his op. 10 (dedicated to Liszt). No. 6 in E flat Minor conveyed a deep melancholy, played legatissimo with liberal pedaling but never blurring the chromatic murmuring of the left hand. No. 5 in G-flat Major (“Black Keys”), lightly pedaled, fizzed and sparkled delightfully. A much less familiar concert étude followed: Manchega, op. 35, by the American Creole pianist/composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk who went to Paris as a teenager to study with Liszt. This showy piece, composed in Spain, had a virtually unrelenting high energy, and Lewin reveled in its near-constant syncopations and the tattoo of left-hand chords like drums. To round off the étude group, Liszt’s own Transcendental Étude No. 10 in F Minor was played with amazing mastery, meeting multiple fiendish technical challenges such as rapid martellato interlocked chords, octaves and double-octaves, arpeggios, etc. A couple gentler passages were more than faintly reminiscent of Chopin’s own F Minor Étude (op. 10, no. 9).

Sophie Menter was the most renowned female student of Liszt and was another virtuoso who also composed. Her Romance, op. 5, was pleasant enough, but one yearned for a piece that made a more lasting impression. This was rather standard-issue romanticism, the melody nearly always stepwise and the accompaniment mostly arpeggios. Lewin did what he could with it, and his exquisitely attenuated touch at the conclusion drew a purr of pleasure from the audience.

Many of Carl Tausig’s contemporaries considered him to be Liszt’s greatest protégé, though, sadly, he did not reach age 30. His The Ghost Ship: Symphonic Ballade, op. 1c, describing a Norse legend, is an impressive achievement for an opus 1. Practically every device in a virtuoso pianist’s arsenal is exploited to illustrate a fierce storm at sea and a Viking ship’s encounter with the titular Ghost Ship. Moreover, Tausig’s harmony is ingenious, especially the diabolical implications of tritones and an early use of the whole-tone scale. Once again, Lewin threw caution to the wind (pardon the expression) with electrifying results as he vividly depicted huge waves, crashing thunder, and lightning.

Following intermission we heard Liszt’s transcription of J. S. Bach’s great organ Fugue in G Minor, from BWV 542, with possibly the most tuneful of all the master’s fugue subjects. This was stated entirely staccato except for the paired 16th notes, giving it an odd spiky quality; but as more voices entered, this staccato thankfully was largely abandoned. The performance was notable for its polyphonic rigor and driving rhythm but was unfortunately marred by a major memory lapse, forcing the pianist to improvise, not too convincingly, though the propulsive rhythm was mostly maintained. Once Lewin was back on track the fugue proceeded smoothly, though the rapid bass octaves nearing the end (played by the feet on the organ) were regrettably heavy-handed and overly emphatic.

Liszt also made solo piano transcriptions of large numbers of songs by a wide array of composers. The artist gave us three examples: Spring by Chopin; The Nightingale by Alexander Alabieff; and On Wings of Song by Felix Mendelssohn. The conventional wisdom is that Chopin’s songs are not his best music, but this performance belied that. Liszt was sensitive to the simple charm of this wistful song and refrained from pianistic elaboration; Lewin likewise rendered it with the directness of a folk song, albeit with sensitive touch. Alabieff’s nightingale, however, gave Liszt the opportunity, eagerly seized, to write cadenzas of birdsong alternating with several Slavic themes. In one passage the two concepts were combined: a long trill in the middle of the texture with voices on either side. Lewin made it sound easy. One suspects On Wings of Song was one of Mendelssohn’s most popular creations in Liszt’s time, as in ours. Liszt’s elaboration on the original is of a sympathetic type, not a virtuoso vehicle. He places the melody initially in the tenor range, rather than the soprano, and for the final verse creates a charming duet. Lewin played the piece affectionately, with warm, cantabile tone.

The next original Liszt composition was a transcription of his own song, Petrarch Sonnet No. 123. Inspired by the 14th-century Italian poet’s immortal sonnets concerning romantic love, Liszt set three of them to music in 1838, and 20 years later transcribed them for solo piano. Lewin’s fine performance wholly justified this piece’s warhorse status. The joys and sufferings of love were given vivid expression; indeed, all contrasts were fully realized: vigor and delicacy, yin and yang, masculine and feminine, …

The program finished with an excerpt from one of Liszt’s opera “concert paraphrases”: the Waltz from Charles Gounod’s Faust. The first theme was given initially in grand fashion, evoking a great ballroom filled with dancing couples, then repeated much more intimately. A calmer central section allowed the pianist to catch his breath, though there were some brilliant, decorative fioriture like shooting stars. The final section featured possibly the most spectacular virtuoso fireworks on the program: very rapid repeated notes interspersed with octaves, glissandi, treacherous leaps in both hands, on and on. As before, Lewin plunged into the breach, nothing daunted, and gave us a hair-raising performance.

The well-deserved standing ovation led to one encore: appropriately enough, Claude Debussy’s Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), one of his most Lisztian works. Lewin again demonstrated a finely calibrated range of touch, so it was a pity that a short section of the piece was lost to a memory slip. Still, he generated plenty of atmosphere, explosive and exhilarating at one turn, seductively caressing at another.

In an age of antiseptic digital perfectionism, there are not many pianists who, playing live, “go for broke” in this hard-core virtuoso repertoire. It is wonderful to encounter one for whom intensity of expression and the irreplaceable excitement of true bravura are higher priorities than absolutely immaculate execution. Michael Lewin is one such. May he prosper.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach and currently sings in the choir of Trinity Church.

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  1. I wish I’d heard this concert.  I think that the programming was especially clever, because Tausig’s _Das Geisterschiff_ is the earliest piece I know that makes use of a twelve-tone aggregate, namely the simultaneous black-key and white-key glissandi, in an upward direction.  This piece dates, I believe, from 1868.  On the same program was Debussy’s _Feux d’artifice_ from 1913, which has simultaneous black-key and white-key glissandi, in the downward direction.  It might be worth noting that the fourth of Alban Berg’s Four Songs, op. 2, from 1909, though it wasn’t on the program, has simultaneous black-key and white-key glissandi, in opposite directions.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — December 30, 2011 at 1:02 pm

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