in: Reviews

February 25, 2014

The Impetuous Alexander Schimpf

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AlexanderSchimpf01The set of keyboard toccatas (S.910-916) composed in Bach’s 20s comprises seven dramatic, finely crafted organ-like works that get performed way too seldom, and, when they are, typically are not played seriously enough. (Most of the fugues do sound young and often faintly idiotic, it’s true.) At Calderwood Hall last Sunday, however, Alexander Schimpf’s presentation of S.914, in E minor, was utterly solid, regular yet with a wonderfully assured freedom and expressivity over the basic structures. Schimpf took its fugue at what felt to me too fast, but for some reason many keyboardists do that with Bach.

After this opening selection, I thought to myself, How nice, still another worthwhile young pianist well on his way, and in Bach no less. (It’s also pleasing that Schimpf looks quite like the younger bro of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.) Alas, the rest of the recital was a letdown, and that did not appear attributable to his having a bad day.

Yes, there were rich, powerful, probing inward moments, some anyway, in Brahms op. 119 (such counterpoint), on Debussy’s “Happy Island,” and in Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata op. 106. (How can anyone not achieve profound stasis in 106?) Other of the playing certainly gleamed brightly, often rather too gleaming, rather too bright. Yet not only were these moments not enough, their effect was also reduced by the absence of poetry, misterioso, majesty, leggero. Brahms 119 doesn’t call exactly for lingering or perfume, but something close to; II was crisp but chiefly that, III joky but chiefly that, and IV, while not perfunctory, needed to exult more, and when it did a bit at the end, Schimpf’s penchant for speed vitiated all. Actually, it’s more than speed; Schimpf positively favors impetuosity. His Debussy felt low in joy, eros, singing, and general Watteau-flavored impressionism (those are the inspiring paintings). Dude, suggestion: relax and smell the flowers, practice slowly, listen more intently into the music.

Since impetuous also means thoughtless, the word is overstatement, surely. Schimpf simply needs to savor, not think more, or harder. He lost his way in that brutal, tense Hammerklavier fugue, and I noted to myself, How nice to hear an honest mistake in this day and age. It didn’t unnerve him; he recovered with aplomb. For a moment afterward, the playing eased, as often happens with pianists’ encores. But soon enough it retightened and stayed there, and it became clear to me that digital slipups were the least of Schimpf’s problems.

Another listener in the press section pointed out that with this approach some Stravinsky or Berio might have been appropriate, adding that he would like to hear Schimpf again in a decade, since this long afternoon sounded still full of ‘competition’ playing, and Schimpf has won lots of those. I very much hope for a broadening and deepening development, although this pianist is already in his early 30s, not early 20s.

Ed. Note: This article has been modified.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

3 Comments

  1. I’m delighted that Mr. Schimpf’s recital has been reviewed here, but my impressions from his performance are considerably different. I’m also startled and dismayed that the reviewer would say that this talented young artist is not now, nor ever shall be, ‘worthwhile’. Is that what you really meant?

    Surely anyone who can produce some “rich, powerful, probing inward moments” in Brahms’ Op. 119 merits a tad more hope, doesn’t he? I found many such moments in the B minor Intermezzo – in fact, it was completely enthralling, wise far beyond the artist’s years, and quite magical to my ears. The E minor wasn’t quite as mysterious as it can be, but never less than engaging, and the C major was not only wry but sparkling with grace and wit. As for the closing Rhapsody, I agree it could have had more exultation, more gravitas.

    I also agree to some extent with the reviewer’s assessment of Mr. Schimpf’s ‘L’isle joyeuse’. Let me just say, though, how condescending I find these words: “Dude, relax and smell the flowers. (Also practice more slowly, listening more intently *into* the music.)”. Perhaps their author meant them in a kindly, avuncular way, but they betray a fatal misconception about the pianist, who seems to have listened quite deeply *into* much of the music on this program.

    In particular, I found his rendering of the massive Hammerklavier remarkably penetrating, and more than able to hold that sprawling skein together, even with his multiple lapses and scattered notes. What his wonderful performance illustrated was the opposite – or at least one opposite – of impetuosity: Mr. Schimpf has a big mind capable of holding the vast architecture of this mammoth edifice in place as his brush filled it in with fleeting strokes. His approach put me in mind of many great pianists who likewise flew past some detail on occasion, or even splattered through it, but often produced a glimmering whole: Cortot, Gieseking, Schnabel. Mr. Schimpf may never equal their sorts of attainments, but they are his kith and kin. I would say, therefore, that many kinds of pianists are truly worthwhile.

    Like the reviewer’s fellow auditor (that’s what you meant, wasn’t it?), I hope to hear Schimpf again in a decade, but I’d also like to hear him in just a few years, and in different repertoire. I’m sure it will be worth my while, and others’.

    Comment by nimitta — February 25, 2014 at 1:42 pm

  2. Frank difference of opinion aside, your eloquence, and a few comments from others, have prompted some modulation to the article, since the reviews on this site do stick around and perhaps can affect careers at their outset.

    Comment by David Moran — February 26, 2014 at 12:02 am

  3. I think nimitta reflects my own thoughts in commentary on David Moran’s review. I’d go even further, in my feeling that Op. 119’s Rhapsody seemed to me quite thrilling; maybe LESS gravitas would have conveyed MORE exultation. The Hammerklavier was astounding to me; missed notes and derailing notwithstanding (or perhaps on account of these), the performance was riveting, a humbling testament to creator and performer. Yes, some moments were perhaps too metallic, lacking in this or that. But on the floor of Calderwood, sight joined with sound to convey Schimpf’s remarkable talent and ensure the memory of an afternoon not soon forgotten.

    Comment by Henry Hoover — February 26, 2014 at 8:17 pm

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