The young Israeli-American pianist Benjamin Hochman has been stirring up quite a bit of interest recently. He gave his first performances in the mid-Hudson Valley area on two consecutive days: Saturday evening, June 28th, at Bard College, and Sunday afternoon at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock. With luck we’ll be hearing a good deal more of him.
For years I have been complaining about the tonal quality produced by prominent young pianists. For someone with the golden sound of Sviatoslav Richter and Arthur Rubinstein in his memory, the typical sound of successful young pianists isn’t satisfying; I describe it as bronze at best, clattery at worst. Radu Lupu, Ivan Moravec, Dubravka Tomsic make beautiful sounds but they are a minority contingent. Recently, some young pianists have brought gold back into my reviewing vocabulary, including Yuja Wang and Jeremy Denk. Hochman is another. At Bard, where he played the three Brahms Violin Sonatas with his wife, violinist Jennifer Koh, Hochman displayed quality and variety of tonal production which were deeply satisfying. (The duo also gave a particularly memorable performance of the Third Sonata.)
At Maverick, Hochman collaborated with the Shanghai Quartet. This was its 24th consecutive appearance in the summer series. Maybe it was the appeal of these players, or maybe just that the audience had been hungry for chamber music since last September, but they drew a particularly large house. The concert opened with Haydn’s very familiar Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2, frequently known as the “Quinten” (German for Fifths) from its opening motif. This was my kind of Haydn playing, full-throated and powerful, with had lots of vigor and excellent balance. In the Menuetto third movement (actually a Scherzo) the players actually roughened their tone and came down heavily on accents to convey the peasant dance quality. I loved it. Since critics get paid time and a half for finding fault, I could mention that in a few passages first violinist Weigang Li’s tone sounded thin. But I really didn’t care.
Hochman joined the ensemble for Bright Sheng’s Dance Capriccio, written in 2011 for the Shanghai Quartet and since performed by them with a number of well-known pianists. The work lasts about 12 minutes, in one continuous movement alternating slow and fast sections. Sheng says the piece is based on Sherpa dance styles, of which I must confess total ignorance. But I can say that he has written an entertaining if not very challenging piece. The performance was very well coordinated and projected the rhythms well.
Sheng’s music didn’t ask the pianist for great tonal variety, but that is certainly a requirement of Janácek’s In the Mist for solo piano. Here we could appreciate all of Hochman’s virtues: the beautiful sound he produced from the Maverick Yamaha; the strong projection of the sometimes-quirky music; the very wide dynamic range. I haven’t thought of velvet in connection with piano sound much in recent years, but that comparison came strongly to mind in this performance.
The program concluded with Dvorák’s Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 (actually his second, but almost nobody plays the first). This is one of those pieces that I love dearly but find myself getting a little tired of. Well, not this time! The opening theme was stated with such relaxed rhythm that my reluctance melted right away, and I was swept into Dvorák’s world with glee. Beautiful sound was only one attribute of this glorious performance, and again, when more roughness of sound was appropriate (in the Scherzo and parts of the finale), the musicians were not afraid of it. This performance was probably put together in a couple of weekend rehearsals, like typical summer festival collaborations. I know that Hochman and the Shanghais had not performed together before. But the concert sounded as confident and mutual in purpose as though they had a long history together. And as if to show how quickly they can put things together, the combined performers topped off a long program with an encore, the Scherzo of Schumann’s Piano Quintet, at a dizzying tempo. I hope they all come back next summer to play the whole thing.