An impressive turnout of Russian-speakers of varying ages within a larger audience greeted pianist Constantine Finehouse Sunday at Jordan Hall, very nearly filling the floor. A St. Petersburg, Russia native himself, Finehouse is currently a member of the New England Conservatory Preparatory School and School of Continuing Education Faculty and an internationally acclaimed artist., Having scheduled his day rather too closely, this reviewer unfortunately largely missed the opening Beethoven Sonata in F minor, Op. 2 No. 1. Even as heard through the hall’s doors, its stormy conclusion held promise.
The second piece was La fille floutée d’après Alfred Cortot, à la mémoire de Claude Debussy, written in 2010 by Richard Beaudoin (b. 1975). My very good French dictionary does not contain floutée; I ultimately decided on a combination of flotté (floated), flou (blurred), and flûté (piping). This work was certainly more challenging for the listener. The composer (who spoke to the audience) explained that he “took a photo” of Cortot’s recording of the oft-heard Debussy prelude, La fille aux cheveux de lin, and “stretched it” over his own performance of it. This pastiche elongation technique, not unique to this piece, leads the original work into a glassy, hyper-impressionist region redolent of Olivier Messiaen sometimes, but at other times working up to tremolo-laden climaxes that are quite at odds with the gentle nature of the original work. At still other times there was a kind of musical free-association which—combined with an extremely slow tempo—made one work to maintain concentration on it. Matters weren’t helped any by a listener in the second row, directly in front of me and twenty feet from the performer, her cell phone ringing in her bag, who saw fit to take it out and answer the wretched thing; speaking in near-conversational tone, she presumably (I don’t comprehend Russian) informed her friend several times that it wasn’t a good time to talk. The rudeness of some concertgoers simply defies belief. Eventually, the piece did come to a mystical conclusion, with audience holding its breath, which again suspended time in the manner of Messiaen.
The Polonaise-Fantaisie in A Flat Major, Op. 61 of Frédéric Chopin closed out the first half. The piece is an interesting hybrid of forms, with the emphasis on the fantasy side but with quasi-regular though not always expected appearances of the more robust polonaise. Moreover, Chopin’s harmony is at times quite free, including abrupt and surprising chord progressions. In a nutshell, this is a challenging work for a pianist to knit together. Finehouse gave a masterful account of it, combining sureness of line, loving lingering at cantabile moments (his rubato an example to any who aspire to play the work), and triumphant climaxes. One of Chopin’s visionary passages, the notorious triple trill, shimmered and shone. Something of an arc, the Polonaise-Fantaisie begins understatedly and when it seems about to conclude similarly, Chopin’s final forte chord, like a conquering force’s victorious cannon-shot, startled one or two listeners from their reverie, with consequent chuckles, but the applause was vociferous.
Returning from intermission, the pianist presented Cenno a Scarlatti, after Sonata in D Minor, K. 32, by Tony Schemmer (b. 1946). As contrasted with Beaudoin’s “elongation” of Debussy’s prelude Schemmer, (also present) described his opus as a “reflection on” Domenico Scarlatti’s “aria for hardsichord,” and self-deprecatingly referred to his [Schemmer’s] technique with a quote from Samuel Johnson: “[The work] is both original and good, but what is original is not good.” In fact, Schemmer’s and Beaudoin’s techniques are not dissimilar. Scarlatti’s aria is slow and deeply poignant, spare of texture, the mood enhanced with very large melodic leaps that anticipate Mozart’s operatic vocal writing. Though Cenno opens with an impressionist wash of sound, it experiments with various textures, alternating the mostly two-voice aria with more nebulous passages wherein shards of melody float. This “post-impressionist” work allowed Finehouse’s range of touch, dynamics, and color to come to the fore, and these were indeed impressive, but perhaps in deference to the original, his shifting atmospheres did not disturb the profound melancholy.
Robert Schumann’s great Fantasie in C, Op. 17, made a grand conclusion to the program, its three movements totaling a half hour of music. The first movement’s interplay of bold, fiery Florestan and introspective, dreamy Eusebius, as well as its solemn “chorale” midway through, surely emphasized the work’s title. In Finehouse’s hands Schumann’s dual alter egos were not rivals interrupting each other: each would speak his piece, then yield gracefully to the other. The celestial chords at the end were exquisitely voiced. The second movement was largely given to Florestan, with an energetic tempo and continuous dotted rhythms in the outer sections. In the middle the playfulness and flirtation were dampened by the pianist’s heavy foot on the pedal, but not fatally. In the famously fiendish coda—marked “much faster” with the hands jumping (still dotted rhythms) in outward contrary motion—Finehouse went for broke. It was not immaculate, but it was old-fashioned bravura and spectacular. Some listeners were unable to restrain themselves from beginning to applaud following the huge sforzando final chords; the artist had to proceed immediately into the last movement to smother the imminent outcry, an uncomfortable necessity when the second movement ends with massive E-flat major chords and the third begins with relatively subdued bass murmurs in C major. This movement belongs largely to Eusebius, and Finehouse vouchsafed perhaps his most intimate and meltingly beautiful sounds of the evening. When the melody was in the middle of the texture, it was caressed and fondled as the cellos and violas of a great orchestra might do; when it was at high atop, it might have been the nightingale of Granados’s maja. The performer built the climaxes inexorably, then made them quickly fade away. The work’s familiar ending, a subsiding extension of one such climax, was not heard this time. In its place was a literal reminiscence of the first movement’s ending, with its celestial distantly echoing chords: a daring sublime piano/pianissimo ending to a big recital program. Of course, the audience would not have it, giving Finehouse a standing ovation and seven (count ‘em!) garlands. His single encore seemed to be another “reflection” on a pre-existing work; apologies to the artist if I’m mistaken, but I’d guess it is one of the two E minor preludes, transposed, from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. It cleansed the palate after Chopin’s and Schumann’s High Romanticism, but it is these that will reverberate most strongly in my memory.