Appearing at the recently renovated Seully Hall on Tuesday evening, pianist Anton Nel brought a winning combination of dazzling technique and stylistic discernment along with generous measures of poetry and wit to an appreciative audience. The recital was part of Boston Conservatory’s Piano Masters Series.
Nel opened his varied program with Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K. 311, composed in Mannheim during the grand tour the 21-year-old composer undertook with his mother in 1777-1778. Something of the brilliance of the renowned Mannheim court orchestra seems reflected in this piece, with its expressive dynamics, frequent changes of mood, and virtuosic flourishes. In the first movement, Allegro con spirito, Nel conjured up a full range of tone colors, used both to point up expressive details and to delineate overall architecture. Inner voices sang with unforced clarity, chromatic touches shone, the bass was crisp and sprightly. In the gentle Andante, each repetition of the theme brought new subtleties, culminating in a climactic crescendo followed by a capricious pianissimo conclusion. The Allegro finale danced its way along with concerto-like bravura, interrupted by a passionate minor episode and a violinistic cadenza before the final reprise, all played with unerring verve and style.
Debussy’s Estampes (1903) transported us to other sound worlds: that of Hokusai and Hiroshige, whose prints were much admired by Debussy, in the swirling turbulence of Pagodes (Pagodas); Andalusia, with the persistent habanera rhythms and evocation of a distant brass choir in La soirée dans Grenade (Evening in Granada); the peaceful calm of gently falling rain in Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain). Nel’s ability to evoke these shifting moods, to hint at contrapuntal lines amidst the haze of blurred pedalling, arpeggios, and staccato figures, demonstrated his mastery of an astonishing variety of tone color and touch. The Allegro de Concierto by Enrique Granados, composed in the same year as Debussy’s Estampes, is a joyous workout that takes possession of the entire keyboard while, in true Lisztian fashion, slower melodic lines emerge from within the dizzying figuration. Nel seemed to revel in the unabashed virtuosity of this technically demanding work with more than a whiff of the salon, without losing sight of its underlying lyricism.
The second half of the program was entirely given over to Schubert’s magical last sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major. Chord voicing was crucial in the first movement, marked Molto moderato: its unfolding harmonies bathed in an aura of infinite tonal space while the left hand maintains a steady forward movement, only to come to a halt on a mysterious low trill. The trill turns out to have thematic significance when it leads a downward slide to a restatement of the opening theme on a new tonic. The entire opening exploration is marked pianissimo, a crescendo appearing only to mark the return of the home key before the movement sets off on a new tonal exploration. Nel’s pianissimo was ethereal yet emerged with the utmost clarity, and once again, he elicited a wide range of tone colors from the different registers of the Steinway. The second movement is a lilting serenade, the melody (mostly harmonized in thirds) sung by the right hand while the left hand “guitar” accompaniment swoops above it from below. Nel chose just the right tempo for this movement, always maintaining its nostalgic song background. After a more passionate middle section, the opening music returns with a new bass figure that reminds us of the first movement’s rumbling trill, and the movement ends on a barely audible whisper. The Scherzo, marked “con delicatezza” and fleetly rushing from one unlikely key to another, pianissimo, was played with a subtle insouciance, while the Trio brought threatening offbeat bass thumps. Nel carried off the rondo finale, Allegro ma non troppo, with characteristic finesse, as tune after tune appeared in a hurtling succession of harmonies and textures leading to a brilliant presto conclusion.
Given the technical and emotional demands of the Schubert sonata, not to mention its “heavenly lengths”, Nel might reasonably have declined to play an encore. Instead, he returned to Mozart (and to D major), rounding off the program with the lighthearted Rondo, K. 485. A pianist of great versatility, Anton Nel combines a prodigious technique with real stylistic insight and sensitivity to the nuances of piano sound. We hope to hear him in Boston again.