Though I attend a lot of piano recitals, years later I can vividly recall concerts of certain artists—Kissin, Hamelin, Jose Luis Pratts, Schepkin, George Li—while most recitals, although very good, have slipped from my memory. Friday night at the Rivers School in Weston, as part of the Chopin Symposium, Antonio Pompa-Baldi gave a stunning recital of Chopin, Grieg, and Debussy. I had been to several of these Chopin Symposium recitals, run exceptionally well by pianist Roberto Poli, over the years, but this concert by someone I had never before heard of, exceeded all expectations.
Italian born and raised, Antonio Pompa-Baldi won the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 1999, and then placed high in others (Silver Medal in Van Cliburn Competition in 2001), but somehow stayed under my radar. Though is on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Music, and has appeared widely, I was unprepared to be blown away—this was not the first time I’ve heard a great pianist.
There was something unusually gripping about Pompa-Baldi’s performance of Chopin’s well-known Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35 (1835-40), called “Funeral March Sonata” for its third movement, but oddly, it was this warhorse of a movement that captured my attention and held me in its grip. Here was a pianist with spectacular technique who also projected great affect. It’s always a surprise to hear new ideas in a piece that has become such a cliché, but the evening was full of these revelations. Those lucky students at the Symposium for the week heard a B-minor sonata, with its lightening-fast and powerful fourth movement, that they will remember as a gold standard for a long time.
Next was one of those good pieces by a good composer that somehow has stayed unknown to most, Edward Grieg’s four-movement Sonata in E Minor, Op. 7 (1865-1887). Pompa-Baldi has recorded the entire piano repertoire by Grieg for Centaur Records in 12 CDs, and his interpretation reflected not only his deep acquaintance with both Grieg’s music, but his own lyrical art. At many moments I simply marveled at the beauty of his playing. What a wonderful introduction to this sonata!
The second half of the recital opened with Debussy’s well-known Suite Bergamasque whose third movement, “Clair de Lune,” has been done a tad (!) too often. A decade ago, I transcribed this four movement suite for harp, and I love every note of it, all of which were done musical justice by Pompa-Baldi, who seemed a born Debussy pianist. The Prélude and Menuet were elegance itself, while “Clair de Lune” was redeemed from the slush pile of pieces we hope never to hear again—on any instrument. It was literally shimmering, like moonlight itself, and beautifully paced. Its name comes from Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name which also refers to ‘bergamasques’ in its opening stanza: Votre âme est un paysage choisi / Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques / Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi / Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques. The Passepied was full of beguiling charm—propulsive yet cantabile.
In Chopin’s famed Twelve Études, Op. 10 (1829-1905) one could easily discern the competition-winner in Pompa-Baldi’s velocity and accuracy, but his arsenal also included nuance, colors, volcanic energy, clarity, accuracy, and touching lyricism. If the so-called “Revolutionary Étude” weren’t thrilling enough as a program ender, we were offered something completely different as an encore—Poulenc’s Gershwinesque song (which works without singer since the piano doubles the vocal line) “Paths of Love.” I hope someone (Hello, Celebrity Series) brings Antonio Pompa-Baldi to Boston again soon.