NEC piano faculty member Gabriel Chodos gave a Jordan Hall recital to a rapt house Sunday night that was in some ways more satisfying than Maurizio Pollini’s Symphony Hall celebrity outing only five hours earlier. The locally eminent mid-70s musician, whom I first reviewed 40 years ago when I was a Globe stringer, presents as amiable and ambling with a deliberate and deliberative style. Many things about him, too, say old-school, from the golden tone, evenness of voicing, burnished subtleties of phrasing and breathing within a sometimes stodgy frame, to the confident diffidence and modesty. Reviews of Chodos mention Schnabel, Hess, Fischer…. I don’t know about that so much, but his work does take you back, if you’re old enough.
The evening opened with one of the more impressive and indrawing piano performances I have heard the last several years, of the young Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata. What a hip single movement of chromaticism that is, everything developing from the opening gestures. Chodos played it so beautifully as to take the breath away, apparently knowing in full its status as a thing of beauty. Passages were almost voluptuous. Gunther Schuller told my seatmate that the performance was a treat in part because Chodos understood the sonata’s 19th century roots, while most other exponents played it as if it were Schoenberg. A distinguished administrator in attendance told a colleague afterward that it was like listening to Art Tatum. I thought more Gershwin channeling Chopin, or maybe vice-versa, before concluding that this was surely some undiscovered complex nonconsonant score of very late Brahms. Regardless, I really need a recording of Chodos’s performance.
Most ensuing choices would be a bit of a letdown, but it was to be rather worse. The second work on the program was Brahms at the outset of his career, a tiresome set of (11) Variations on an Original Theme (Op. 21, No. 1). Seldom heard, and one can see why. The mid-20s composer was in one of his Baroque-seeking moods, and thick bombast mostly ruled, measures that seem all bunched texture and cadence, blurred inner lines and no memorable tune. Chodos’s love of plod did it no service. (I so hope he constrains his poky late-Arrau tendencies as the years unfold, ones wherein many probing pianists sometimes come to be mesmerized by their own stasis, listening to themselves slowly examine and reexamine the notes and chords.) In the event, it was hard to believe this was the same youthful master Brahms who wrote that First Piano Concerto.
Schubert’s four Impromptus D.935, the lesser-played set, returned us to olden times. A Chodos fan present observed that the pianist is like an analog photograph, where the camera focuses on one zone or plane, not the equal and everywhere clarity of digital pictures. Chodos’s Schubert playing was not perfectly clean, again occasionally blurry, but again evenhanded in weightings, and the chiming of the wistful, almost whispering Q&A starting 2-3 minutes into No. 1 (naturally picked up again later) ached beyond words. The stasis and chordal thickness of No. 2 were a thing of beauty also. The song of No. 3, rippling and again a bit thick, plodded in loveliness, but fascinating to me is that for all of their throwback virtues neither Chodos nor Pollini possesses a genuinely feathery leggiero. Impromptu no. 4 skipped and danced, major to minor or is it the other way round, presaging Joplin, whose German-born teacher had him learn a lot of Schubert. (No kiddin’.)
Now. For the entire program not a single cough was to be heard. This compared to Symphony Hall as a consumptive ward for Pollini only hours before. Yeah, a smaller audience, I know, but still.
For his reluctant encore, Chodos asked if we wanted to hear Impromptu no. 2 again, and this time it became a holy experience.