Randall Hodgkinson took center stage Monday night at Jordan Hall. The centerpiece of the program, played first, was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. After intermission his fellow members of the Gramercy Trio—Sharan Leventhal, violin and Jonathan Miller, cello—joined him to premiere Gunther Schuller’s Piano Trio No. 3. The program ended with short solo piano works of Fauré.
We were treated to a warm, personal interpretation of the Goldberg Variations, a concert performance but one with the intimacy of the chamber hall. Without the dramatic harmonic arc of, say, a 19th-century symphony, variations often present a particular challenge for artists to sustain an audience’s engagement. Not an issue for Hodgkinson.
There was drama and plenty of variety to his variations (understanding that Bach gets a little credit here). We got serious Bach, lighter Bach, lyrical Bach, and Bach the big showoff. There were fugues, gigues, other dances, aristocratic sounds, variations that sound downright strange even today (25, 28, 29), a series of ingenious canons, motor rhythms, and a lot more. Hodgkinson’s playing also brought grace and charm along with some bravura playing. With only three variations in the minor mode, Variations 15 and 25 provided the most contrast, and some poignancy. Variation 25, with its dark chromatic and rhythmic convolutions, and poignant melodic leaps was lyrical, haunting, and a bit creepy, in a good way.
His rendering of the opening aria set the tone, lovely and nuanced, but always moving forward. Hodgkinson framed almost all of the variations with some closure, a breath and slight pause (except for early on, when he ended Variation 3 with a surprise final note forte, to introduce the next). Interestingly, this articulation between variations contributed to the forward motion of the work as a whole. Nearly fifty minutes of music passed—Hodgkinson’s concentration and clear conception of the work helping to facilitate ours—and suddenly we’re at the return of the opening aria, exactly the same, but transformed by our experience.
Hodgkinson did rush a bit, going for broke in a couple of the faster variations, those with the difficult hand crossing and, even more challenging, hands on top of each other. (Note that the work was composed for a two manual harpsichord.) Despite Hodgkinson’s not being a showy pianist by nature, these were played in a more virtuosic style, and at times he applied just a bit too much pedal. Not so with Variation 23, which was a blast to watch and hear.
After intermission came the world premiere of Gunther Schuller’s Piano Trio No. 3 (2012). The short work began with a slow introduction to the first movement, with lots of starts—the violin and cello alternating short slides in complicated rhythmic patterns leading to lots of sudden stops punctuated by piano chords—which lead to a faster rhythmic section introduced in the piano. A lyrical violin contrasted with the piano, leading to a duet between violin and cello, lots of tremolos, more slides and some strumming and plucking inside the piano. It was quite dissonant and a bit jarring, in a good way, keeping us on our toes. The slow second movement started with stratospheric harmonics from the violin and some subterranean echoes from the cello, and soon introduced, briefly, a dotted rhythmic figure. Up until this point, there were mostly conversations between the instruments. The third movement combined the three instruments as more of a trio (though the work was never too densely textured) and we were treated to the most tonal music of the piece. A dotted rhythmic figure entered and took over (perhaps developed from the 2nd movement?) in the piano and an almost gypsy, jazzy melody ushered forth in the strings, carrying us to the end of the work.
Schuller received a great round of applause as did the musicians, who, relieved to have gotten through the premiere of a challenging work, took a moment to catch their breath before treating us to a 2nd, perhaps slightly more relaxed but no less intense, performance.
Hodgkinson ended the night with lovely renditions of five preludes from Op. 103 of Fauré: Nos. 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7, and his Impromptu No. 3 in A-flat Major, Op. 34. He was clearly enjoying himself. We enjoyed his playing even more. A good half of those in attendance gave him a warm, standing ovation, fitting for his playing throughout the evening.