in: Reviews

August 8, 2016

The Astonishing Alex Beyer

by

Alex Beyer (file photo)

Alex Beyer (file photo)

With 22-year-old pianist Alex Beyer, who played Saturday night at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in the Chinese Performing Arts Foundation festival, we moved a full step up to an almost completely different level of artistry.

Already Beyer presents as—let me grab my dictionary—a highly accomplished, confident, mature pro, complete in both skills and taste, constantly poised and strong, a player who even in savagely difficult works effortlessly offers up interpretations of depth, probity and insight, and does so with easy brio, achieving renditions anyone twice or thrice his age would be grateful for. We’re not talking competition technique here (although he has that in spades) but unhesitant, projected musicianship.

This recital comprised Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel, with Scriabin for the encore. (No Chopin, no Schubert: yay.) I actually was not looking forward greatly to any of it. Much Bach playing is not to my taste for clarity and drive. The Eroica Variations have seemed to me little more than the closure of that underappreciated composer early Beethoven. The first set of Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-Tableaux sound often like masses of notes and not a lot more. And who needs to hear yet again a young multi-prizewinner tear up the keyboard with Ravel’s La Valse?

Wrong.

Bach’s English Suite No. 6 Prelude was transparent and steady and also dramatically inflected. The Beethoven Eroica Variations (published when the composer was the age of Schubert at his death, I calculated) sounded in Beyer’s hands like the culmination of Haydn at his most prickly-comic: witty, dashing, greatly various, with serious attention paid to every atom of sound. It was notably more stimulating than any performance I’ve ever heard of the work, including recordings. I want a copy.

The Rachmaninoff Opus 33 Studies/Pictures brought us somewhat back to earth, being finely and thoughtfully gauged but wanting the last feather of leggiero.

Beyer’s Ravel did not signal the end of culture nor presage apocalypse but had sly lilt, was exciting musically and not just technically, and truly funny more than once. It was our good fortune to be so entertained. It sounded as well very lovely and patiently dancy. See what you think of Beyer’s way with it. It takes nerve today for a competition star to convey it foremost as beautiful composing.

The encore featured quiet, minor-key Scriabin.

Were there no shortcomings? Okay: Beyer took the Bach too fast some of the time, and the same with Beethoven’s concluding fugue. At moments the lefthand dominated. And while he takes his time and always thinks before striking, is it sometimes a little studied?

With other pianists our awareness of lacks takes elemental form. Why’s the rhythm slack each time in that passage, needing emergency rubato? Why does he not play out? Why are trills smudgy? Where’s the zeal? Or: where’s the engaged interiority? With Beyer such ponderings aren’t possible, as the elements of his style all feel coherent, integrated. Clean, even voicing; deep digging into the keys; lightness of attack and crispness of release; self-listening; graceful ritards in trills and runs; regular success between act and outcome: to hear expert playing like this constitutes high and relaxing pleasure.

As with Haochen Zhang three months ago, I’d gladly buy a CD or DVD of this recital, especially those Eroica Variations, to listen to repeatedly for pleasure and force on friends. Do not miss this young musician if you enjoy first-rate artistry.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

4 Comments

  1. Some addenda:

    – Shanghai-born Wang is still a musicology doctoral student at the Manhattan School.

    – Boston native Lu is a Curtis student.

    – Connecticut-born Beyer is at Harvard, studying math; Sherman and Wha-Kyung are his teachers.

    – The summer Walnut Hill festival for the Chinese Performing Arts Foundation is woefully underattended given such frequently superb performances. It’s a high-caliber venture, and the halls sometimes have only handfuls of music-lovers, most of them festival students and friends/family. It’s August, sure, and Natick doesn’t sound as though it’s quite out in the country as all proper summer music festival must be, although the Walnut Hill campus feels plenty rural, in fact moreso than some notionally pastoral summer festivals.

    – The Keiter Center is a mid-small hall with clear, even, potent acoustics, and the pianos typically are ravishing. I’ve been told that nobody else much likes the venue, however, but maybe that’s because they haven’t had to give recitals and chamber concerts at Brandeis, Longy, Paine, or Rivers; and actually I might prefer Keiter to Rockport (or Kresge) for some small forces and levels. Boswell Hall, a large parlor, can be awfully loud; a BMInt colleague has judged it intolerable, and everyone complains about it. I like piano sound healthy sometimes, though, and it’s good for today’s superpower keyboard kids to have to learn to adjust.
    Both venues would be rather different if packed with a normal, much less overflowing, audience.

    – I surely wish readers nimitta and SamW had heard these performances of Wang, Lu, and especially Beyer.

    – Normally I try and include comments from savvy piano maven friends in my reviews, but none could accompany me. I sent Beyer’s La Valse video to one such, though, and he had typically novel, and thankfully confirmatory, apercus:

    It’s certainly dreamier, more fantastic and substantially less relentless than what we have heard recently. The sinister parts also sound scarier than in the simply loud and fast versions. I don’t mind listening to this. It whirls rather than stomps.

    Comment by david moran — August 8, 2016 at 11:44 pm

  2. Forgot to mention that the main residential street, Grove, off Rte 27 up to Walnut Hill, features, at #26 right in the frontyard, the two hugest, most spectacular matching beeches (surely 200y old) around. Tree-lovers, you have never seen anything like them.

    Comment by david moran — August 8, 2016 at 11:48 pm

  3. Thanks David for this stirring report! Correction to a correction: Alex is actually enrolled in the Harvard/New England Conservatory dual degree program; Byun/Sherman are his NEC studio teachers.

    Comment by Rob Schmieder — August 29, 2016 at 9:15 am

  4. Was quoting his website, and right, those teachers are not at Harvard.

    Comment by david moran — August 29, 2016 at 11:54 am

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