IN: Reviews

Virtual Campfire at Gardner


Andrew Tyson (file photo)
Andrew Tyson (file photo)

Sunday afternoon at Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Calderwood Hall, Andrew Tyson took us on a journey across three centuries of keyboard experiences, from Handel to Scriabin. By turns thoughtful, introspective, daring and energetic, his playing made the lidless piano evoke a great campfire, uniting and enthralling the audience. Tyson is not just another virtuoso doing quadruple axels. Our great pleasure was seeing a pianist who has thought deeply about every phrase, every cadence, and has decided on his own interpretation; more often than not, he is convincing.

The last movement, Air and Variations, from Handel’s Suite for Keyboard, Vol. 1, No. 5, often spuriously called The Harmonious Blacksmith, was the opener. (The program incorrectly listed the entire Suite, but only the last movement was performed.) Tyson gave it a sweet, lyrical initial statement, with careful, intricate voicing in the variations, ornamenting the repeats. The joyful reading was a good way to start the concert.

The main piece of the first half was Mozart’s magnificent Sonata in C Minor, K. 457. Tyson took the opening allegro briskly, with sharp contrasts in dynamics, bringing out the Sturm und Drang and an outpouring of emotion. The adagio was taken at a moving pace, sorrowful and wistful, with the pensive lyricism emerging at the end. The final movement, molto allegro, was especially impressive—searching, alert, great dark tones, and a contagious pathétique feeling. Man plans, god laughs.

It seemed to be no accident that the remainder of the program consisted of Scriabin, Chopin and Schumann, in that order, as if to impress on us that the early Scriabin was not influenced only by Chopin, but began to show a strong Schumann influence as well. The Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 38 was written in 1903, and marked a temporary return to his earlier romantic works, but both Chopin and Schumann were clearly in evidence in this performance. It was explosive pianism, starting with a deliberate sentimentality which was quickly subverted by doubt, terror and rebellion. Expressionistic subjectivity sabotaged the complacency of the introduction, shattering the false sentimentality and replacing it with an honest and lush decadence.

The Scriabin nicely prepared us to hear Tyson’s Chopin, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45 connecting directly to the Barcarolle, Op. 60, both unmarred by sentimentality. In the Prelude, Tyson gave us a vigorous Chopin torn between addiction to the voluptuousness of leafy summer nights at Nohant and the tragedy of illness and premature death. In the ensuing Barcarolle there was a note of ecstasy, even extravagance as it turned into a sweeping Shelley-like whirlwind of desire.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Schumann’s monumental Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13. (Here the program did not list the five “posthumous” etudes that Tyson inserted into the standard set, as is often done.) The Etudes en forme de variations extended Chopin’s innovative use of the etude form, especially in the direction of making the piano effectively symphonic. Tyson presented Schumann as a force of nature, from the tragic downward sweep of the opening Andante, to the complex inner voices so characteristic of Schumann. Etude IV especially was played in a distinctly abrupt, slightly unhinged manner, giving it great resonance. The Mendelssohnian scherzando was followed by a chaotic, almost manic agitato, hinting at a moment when Schumann is overwhelmed by the powerful forces struggling inside of him.  Not until Etude XI, the beautiful andante espressivo, was Schumann’s long symphonic arch completed and the capacity for narrative recovered. The finale burst forth in a resolute and fiery march, played with orchestral scope but remaining vulnerable with intimate and introspective pockets.

Responding to a well-deserved ovation, Tyson played an encore dedicated to “a cellist friend,” a delightfully off-kilter rendering of “The Swan” in Godowski’s transcription from Saint-Saëns Animals.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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