On the eve of Easter, the second night of Passover and the NCAA’s Final Four, Jordan Hall appeared rather depopulated, but those rapt 100-plus auditors for pianist Christian Budu’s NEC artist diploma recital (the 25-year-old São Paulo native studies with Wha-Kyung Byun) received rewards for their intrepidity. The artist diploma designation means what it implies—as in the case of many before him in this category, Budu’s artistry was sufficient to win a major competition, in this case, the Clara Haskil, putting him in the company of such greats as Christoph Eschenbach and Till Fellner.
Ambling on stage in a moss-green tunic and dark jeans, Budu bonded immediately with the crowd as he disarmingly declared his awe at finding himself in the great Jordan Hall. He would warm up and test the sound, he told us, with two Bach chorales. “Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded” was certainly apt for the lectionary, and coming as it did with Budu’s signature alertness to tone, line color, and especially dynamic nuance in the quieter regions, it introduced him well. But the (un-provided) text of the next chorale, “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” constituted something of an emblematic calling card for the entire recital. “To whom the lips of children/make sweet hosannas ring…/who in all good delightest…” might have been Budu’s moto, for he was aglow throughout the night, dispensing youthful delight in his art.
In the first half, this approach was satisfying and revelatory. Beethoven’s seven op. 33 Bagatelles came across as much more than mere. Beginning with the Andante, they sounded well-etched, lapidary and bright of wit. In the Scherzo we witnessed such distinct call and answer voicings that we could imagine a two-manual instrument. The second melody growling in the bass provided yet another sharply defined expression. His infinitely graduated legato and detachment, color, and shading could have sounded contrived, and more than the light pieces could bear had we encountered these details without Budu’s smiles, but his thoughtful and outgoing artistry really drew us in. He deployed real mastery of palette painting. The Allegretto began with a haunting inwardness, at the same time misty and lean. Ravishing pianissimos projected transparently in the hall’s utter silence. The Andante anticipated Schumann, as the keyboard poet told of foreign lands and places—this was real musical storytelling. Lightning runs and silvery filigree shimmered with flawless evenness in inevitably shaped arcs in the Allegro ma non troppo. Budu delivered in the Allegretto, quasi andante, wonderful hesitations and rubati with music box lightness across a seamless range of dynamics between pppp and mp. Budu’s concluding Presto came with quizzical, puckish expressions for eyes as well as ears. Budu knows how to make the piano sing, dance and smile with colorful, nuanced variety.
Beginning as it did with enthusiastic response to the composer’s con brio directive, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C Major (Waldstein) opened almost as an eighth bagatelle. Throughout the sonata Budu brought focus to details in a refreshing and pleasantly surprising manner. Because of the artist’s shifting colorations and abhorrence of banging, the opening movement never became relentless . His layering of voices was three dimensional—or mayhaps four, if one counts time. The second movement opened with a still, small voice patiently rising to a woeful utterance. Then the tune, teasingly held-back, bloomed with gentleness before rising to well-regulated militancy. After the final no-holds-barred prestissimo, one was left with a picture of the artist as fresh and improvisatory young keyboard master, yet at the same time the brilliant author of an unerringly plotted “well-made musical play.”
How Budu’s puckishness would translate in the deep seriousness of Schubert’s language in the final sonata in B-flat Major was the subject of much discussion during intermission. Would his artistry become artifice?
The sonata began promisingly enough after nearly 20 seconds of silent anticipation. We were struck at once by the verdurous pianist’s joy. Rapidly propelled, clear, and lightly pedaled, this was more “Rauschendes Bächlein” than the valedictory of a dying genius. Nowhere in evidence were foreshadowing of the tragic, or nostalgic recollections of an old man for his youth. And just maybe, the sonata was better for the casting overboard of all that baggage. Many have remarked that Schubert did not really believe he was dying, and that he destined this grand sonata for placement within a larger set. Technically Budu was nearly immaculate. Pianissimo trills were perfectly weighted. He had massive power, but engaged it rarely
Budu’s de-mystifyings were ok in this first movement, but in employing the same approach in this section as he had in the previous movement, and indeed in the rest of the recital, Budu raised some doubts about how deeply he wanted to peer into the darker pools that he elided between the glistening stones in the rushing brook.
The unsurpassed Andante sostenuto was rushed-through and dry-eyed. Yes, the grace notes in the opening were articulated with a sophisticated restraint and the momentum was at times held back as if by steel bands, and yes, this was the quietest andante I have ever heard, but the noble second theme arrived too soon, without even a modicum of Sehnsucht; we were put rather in mind of Stephen Foster’s lesser poignancy in “Why should the beautiful ever weep?/ Why should the beautiful die?”
The Scherzo: Allegro danced and swayed with a companionability (and without a specter in pursuit) that placed it in better connection with the second movement than in performances where that andante is more funereal. And in this scherzo as well as the final Allegro ma non troppo-Presto, we were grateful for the masterful technical accomplishments: telling inflections in affecting variety and sumptuous, mature tone.
In sum, this was a young man’s Schubert, and maybe that’s right, since Schubert was never anything but. The playing was certainly not callow, though it sounded starved of the emotional probing and existential angst that older interpreters such as Paul Lewis and Gabriel Chodos have brought to this hall in recent years.
Budu seemingly felt some of the emotion which I detected only in his impassioned humming and his choice of elegiac encore. In his transcription of Schubert’s “Litanei” (Cortot’s version shorn of extraneous notes he told us afterwards), he comforted himself with a musical representation of that poetical reverie:
Rest in peace, all souls
who have had done with anxious torment
who have had done with sweet dreams
who, sated with life and hardly born
have departed from this world:
all souls rest in peace!
Perhaps when a mature Budu plays this sonata, we will find ourselves in want of the consolation his encore provided him on this night.