Three months ago, the accomplished Filipina pianist Cecile Licad performed Part I of her Chopin/Liszt piano series as part the new Calderwood Hall’s inaugural season at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum [BMInt review here]. On Sunday, May 20, she presented Part II as the final offering of the season in the not-quite-new venue (though it still retains that “Eau du New Hall” essence).
Calderwood Hall’s stage-free ‘theater in the square’ proves an intimate, visually arresting space in which to hear a solo recital. The performer seems particularly exposed, surrounded as she is on all sides, with three tiers of balconies looming overhead. This exposure is auditory as well, with a take-no-prisoners, sharply delineated acoustic. The strikingly austere environment, coupled with Licad’s analytical approach, resulted in an all-Romantic program largely devoid of the traditional trappings of Romanticism.
Chopin’s relatively obscure Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat Major, op. 61 was a case in point. Licad dissected this work with a precise technique, little wasted motion, and light pedaling. Gone was most phrasing, rubato, and gesture, leaving the piece’s underlying musical bone structure clearly visible. Intellectually this was quite enlightening, especially given the harmonic intricacies of this particular work. Licad’s technical prowess is formidable; she plays with power and rock-solid security. This is one performer who was more than up to the scrutiny of Calderwood’s musical microscope.
Unfortunately, this sort of academic approach just didn’t really seem appropriate for either the three Chopin Mazurkas, op. 56, or the Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante, op. 22. Licad’s rendition of the Mazurkas was clean, albeit a bit stiff, well played but without any sort of give-and-take or playfulness. The Andante was exquisitely realized, with a pleasingly lyrical tone, though the noble polonaise seemed desiccated by comparison. All told, Licad’s interpretations of these Chopin creations seemed to lack the emotional nuance and refinement generally associated with this composer. Apparently, I was in the minority with my reservations, however, as most of the capacity crowd of some 296 was on its feet at the conclusion of the first half.
After the sublime elegance of Frédéric Chopin, the second half featured the visceral virtuosic bombast of Franz Liszt. His Misère du Trovatore de Verdi, S. 433 started things off with a dramatic flourish. This piece, sometimes referred to as a transcription, is perhaps more accurately described as a musical interpretation of an Act IV duet from Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Licad’s direct, robust, and technically accomplished playing seemed much better suited to the pure, unvarnished, unabashed, crash-bang virtuosity of vintage Liszt. This was all the more apparent in the afternoon’s final offering, Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, S. 161/7, a fiendishly difficult work consisting of a single movement lasting some 18 minutes and apparently composed when Liszt was in the throes of some sort of demonic possession. Licad was in her element as she reeled off sheets of eardrum-rattling octave runs, hurtling towards a piano-pulverizing conclusion that left the wooden floor palpably vibrating beneath our feet. An enthusiastic audience reaction yielded a single encore in the form of more Liszt, but of the slightly subdued variety: his hypnotic La Campanella.
Some performances impress more than move; such was the case for this reviewer and this particular recital. Cecile Licad is a phenomenal pianist whose interpretations of the Romantic repertoire are instructively idiosyncratic.