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Harmonic Framework in Heller’s Bach & Brahms


Fifty souls gathered Saturday night just behind the Green at First Parish Church Lexington to hear a somewhat informal, thoughtful piano recital of Bach and Brahms. The church is classic New England, with an all-white interior dominated by towering golden organ pipes above a plush deep red banquette. Below, on the floor with the parishioners, is an obviously experienced  —  and very respectable  —  mid-size black Steinway.

The program was presented by Diran Heller, piano teacher, church musician, and accompanist in and around Boston. Despite these responsibilities, he found time to undertake an ambitious recital program of five preludes and fugues from both books of the Well Tempered Clavier and the eight Klavierstücke of Brahms’s op. 76. He introduced the program by describing the two volumes of the WTC and pointing out the two composers’ similar devotion to their respective musical traditions, then demonstrated the less-than-traditional improvisatory nature of the B-flat major prelude from WTC Book 1.

Heller played preludes and fugues in C minor, C-sharp major, and B-flat major from Book 1, and C major and D minor from Book 2 from memory, an impressive feat for five different fugues, and even more impressive when he made a few [small] stumbles but was able to continue. (Ask any pianist about re-starting from memory in the middle of a fugue!) Voices and harmonies were always clear and conveyed a feeling of thoughtful consideration.

The four Capriccios and four Intermezzi that comprise Brahms’s op. 76 are not to be taken lightly; they are thickly written and filled with dense harmonies and rhythmic sleight of hand. They also cover extensive emotional territory, despite their character-piece format. While we did not hear emotional fireworks from Heller in these pieces, we certainly did hear the harmonic framework as well as individual lines, surging broken chords in the bass, and interior voices that are so easy to lose in grand washes of sound. Upper voice melodic lines were sometimes hard to follow; the entire recital was performed with the piano lid closed, presumably because of the very live acoustics in the sanctuary, but an open lid would have enhanced the high register and undoubtedly made the Brahms in particular feel more expansive.

Heller often uses a real finger legato when many musicians would depend on the sustaining pedal; this is certainly one source of the clarity in his playing. He holds degrees in composition from Boston Conservatory and Boston University and has taught music theory at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute; that training probably also contributes to his attention to structure. It was very interesting to hear this music from that vantage point.

Jan Walker holds a bachelors degree in piano performance from Wichita State University in her native Kansas.  A health services researcher at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, she still takes piano lessons, plays chamber music, and never misses MetOpera Live in HD performances.

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