Staggeringly stunning? Stunningly staggering? Not quite the right descriptors for the 49-year-old Russian pianist and new BU professor Pavel Nersessian, who—relaxed, confident, moment-enjoying, attentive both to the composer’s work and to his own work in its behalf—gave a recital Friday night in Weston at the River School Conservatory’s annual Chopin Symposium that was uncommonly satisfying. In fact it was by some measure the most satisfying varied-program piano recital I’ve been to in I don’t know how long.
Why was this, and how? What’s ‘satisfying’? It wasn’t my mood, I think. From the opening measures of the four Hindemith Tanzstücke (1920), I felt relieved, then pleased to be carried along in this musical artist’s happy grip. Why don’t we hear this set more often: jazzy, angular, nonconsonant, but sensible and easy to follow. Nersessian was ever alert to Hindemith’s Haydnesque offbeat-as-normal procedures, and the rendition was perfection: crisp, modulated, gladhearted, with Pantomime, IV, rollicking big and loud. What a start.
In an age of steroidal technique, Nersessian’s playing is not necessarily what you’d call effortless, but I hasten to add that this diminutive, charming, almost slight musician has chops aplenty: major powers, accurate marksmanship, ultralight touch with many shades and colors of quiet, and instrument-bouncing (at least an inch) dynamic range.
There was more than all that; quickly evident were a certain aplomb, easy competence taken for granted by him and us, dash, plus a degree of casual seriousness or serious casualness to it all. The Schubert A-major sonata D.664, affected and swoony in the best senses, overflowed with delicacies of small righthand delays, with complete naturalness. The opening song sang simply (it harks forward to Sammy Fain’s famous ‘Secret Love’ from Calamity Jane), the Andante felt like a breakup note on birchbark (even though Nersessian did not fully get Schubert’s bossa-nova-like rhythms), and the Allegro revealed hushed inner voices, pearly and radiant. Best of all: when was the last time you heard any pianist end a known piece with a final cadence of ff two chords that for some charming reason he decided to play softly? It wasn’t arch, it was a sweet, slight surprise. Nersessian aims to please, on his own terms.
Liszt’s retelling of Schubert’s “Ständchen” lied was so rich that I was sure Puccini and Mascagni must’ve studied it later in the century. “Erlkönig” erupted but remained the harrowing, harrying mess it usually is, congested, hammering, the horse’s octaves again causing knots in the stomach.
Nersessian does the hard unheralded keyboard labor with total apparent poise. His touch is notably lighter and more careful than many. He playfully believes in his extremes of volume and drama, and portrays that drama unselfconsciously. The Liszt Sonata, which I’ve never witnessed in a small recital hall, unexpectedly featured many almost inaudible notes (from the start), and almost overwhelming rock ’n’ roll later on. It was great fun, and at the same time a soul-disturbing engagement, to experience Liszt’s huge spectacle, twinkling dissonances, many rolled chords. That fugue was fast. Afterward, the crowd met his high energy.
The encores complied with less is better, thankfully: short Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Rather fagged they sounded, understandably. No matter. I’d go out of my way to hear Pavel Nersessian again in this very program, or in anything else. Even if you’re not a piano maven, or scorekeeper of the rising hotshots and the maturer unknowns, be certain to hear this guy if you get the opportunity.