Last night Pro Musicis presented one of its 2011 International Award winners, Andrew Staupe, at Longy’s Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall. Staupe has toured extensively throughout Europe and America, performs regularly with the Minnesota Orchestra, and just celebrated his Carnegie Hall debut this month. In a recital that spanned the Baroque to the present day, the young pianist displayed some unevenness during the first half of the program, but overall offered an expressive Boston debut.
Three short, full-of-character sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, famous in his time as a rival to Handel at the keyboard and composer of over 500 similar works, opened the program, starting with Staupe’s joyous, ringing lines and a slight penchant to rush the Sonata in A, K.101. The pianist highlighted the contrapuntal energy underlying the mysterious arpeggios of the Sonata in F Minor, K. 466, but his overly crisp flourishes marred an otherwise strutting Sonata in C, K. 159.
Staupe introduced American composer Christopher Walczak (born 1970)’s Dark Blue Etude, composed especially for Staupe as a response to his request to “make the most beautiful piano piece he could write.” Having its world premier at Carnegie Hall last week, this work was described by the composer as fusing “elements of contemporary ‘pop’ modality with inflections of American jazz and blues, underpinned by a few embedded atonal structures.” Though its compact form and big, fast gestures didn’t leave much room for detail or reflection, Staupe handled its references to Rachmaninov, Gershwin and Art Tatum effectively, closing with a smoky blues-inflected coda.
Franz Schubert’s expansive, emotional Sonata in A, D. 959, composed within the last months of Schubert’s life, presented the most issues for Staupe. Staupe’s over-emphasis of Schubert’s bass lines distracted from the composer’s shapely melodies and juxtapositions of fond remembrance and resignation. Staupe tossed out the ascending phrases of the first movement Allegro’s development gracefully, yet his left hand tended to hammer, with wide octaves sounding especially unbalanced. While plumbing the harmonies of the second movement Andantino, Staupe’s square phrasing created an overly ponderous feel. He was more easygoing for the frilly Scherzo, and the closing Rondo was supple and balanced, with an especially lucid, rolling accompaniment in the recapitulation.
Staupe returned stronger after intermission, starting with Felix Mendelssohn’s Fantasy in F-Sharp Minor, op. 28, originally titled Scottish Fantasy. Early-19th-century Europe enjoyed a Scottish vogue, thanks to the publication of Ossian’s epics, George Thomson’s edition of Scotch folk songs, and Sir Walter Scott’s novels, which the 19-year-old Mendelssohn seized upon without having even visited Scotland! The first movement’s harp-like cascades and wistful country theme showed off Staupe’s clean articulation and sensitive touch, capped off with a heartfelt transition to the main Con Moto Agitato theme and a floating coda. A flowing Allegro Con Moto followed, and the final Presto spotlighted Staupe’s cool, confident middle-register phrasing.
Staupe’s lighter touch in the Scottish Fantasy segued effectively into Claude Debussy’s La Terrasse de Audiences du Claire de Lune (The Terrace of Spectators by Moonlight). Taken from Debussy’s second book of Préludes, this short, evocative work was supposedly inspired by Debussy’s reading of an account of nocturnal festivities surrounding a coronation in India. It’s also one of his more “classical” works, saddling moments of more traditional harmony and periodic structure in the vein of Berlioz and even Beethoven next to his impressionistic whole-tone language. Staupe’s liberal tempo occasionally bordered on being self-indulgent and losing the narrative, but his absolutely delicate touch and transparent textures sustained a captivating mood.
Speaking to the audience once again, Staupe introduced the final work on the program, Heitor Villa-Lobos’s (1887-1959) Rudepoêma (Savage Poem), as “one of the most unjustly neglected works in the piano repertoire.” Staupe shed some light onto the motifs and structure within Villa-Lobos’ dense, technically demanding, 19-minute long work, written for legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Yet Staupe’s fluid, energetic ownership of Villa-Lobos’s dissonances and spiky Brazilian rhythms made analysis incidental. Bulky voicings came across with the electric atmosphere of a nightclub, with Staupe building tension in trance-like, rumbling tremolos. He had explained to the audience that they should look for his fist hitting the keys to know when the piece was about to end, but the lighting fast, thundering lower register coda was as dramatic as it was obvious. Schubert’s Hungarian Melody in B minor, D. 817, made for a poised, gently building encore, as well as further evidence of a passionate developing talent.