Nobody today plays the great Romantic classics in the spellbindingly smooth-edged yet serious manner of Victor Rosenbaum. At Jordan Hall Monday evening, celebrating his upcoming 50th anniversary at NEC, the eminent member of the piano faculty skipped (really) onstage and settled in—and while his points all had gravitas, they were ever rounded. ‘Sensitive, carefully considered’ is how the Globe described Rosenbaum’s approach back a few years after his start. Michael Steinberg went on to explain that “The appeal … is in his musical temperament, in which fervor and gentleness are happily combined, and in the velvet of his tone. …My own subjective preference is for playing that more vividly differentiates the characters of the [last three Beethoven] sonatas and which sets [the composer’s] idiosyncrasies into higher relief. Obviously, though, Rosenbaum knows that the dissonances and the jaggednesses are there; he does, however, prefer to articulate them softly.”
Beethoven’s unusual original-theme variation set, Opus 34, opened the recital. It’s experimental. The 31-year-old composer went to amusing pains to emphasize how much so (among other attributes, each variation until the last is in a key different from the theme):
composed in a truly new manner, … in a different way, … [the] theme has been treated in a manner that is different … ; usually I only hear others mention when I have new ideas since I never know it myself, but this time can, I have to, reassure you myself that … the manner is entirely new by myself.
Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung published a description strong and detailed:
It already evokes a favorable predisposition toward these Variations that the famous composer who otherwise does not list small pieces of this genre among the numbers of his works has done so with these. And this predisposition is completely justified. The Var. are very beautiful and treated in a special manner that is also different from that of other Variations of this author. An excellent theme and added to it what a mind that is fertile with inventive ideas can express in his many ideas when he allows them to play themselves out freely; this is what these variations contain. Of the latter, one can already gain an impression when we present the content here: Theme: soft, but important, F Major, Adagio cantabile, 2/4 time, Var. completely free-flowing and graceful, D Major, same time, same tempo; Var. 2, B Major, serious, Allegro ma non troppo, 6/8 time, Var. 3, serene, G Major, Allegretto, C time; Var. 4 B-flat Major, friendly, Tempo di Minuetto, 2/4 time; Var. 5, c minor, dignified and strong, Marcia, 2/4 time; transition to the return in F Major, Var. 6 F Major, Allegretto, 6/8 time, cheerful, partly playful; executed finale in a free Adagio molto. Everything flows thus into each other and forms a beautiful, well-rounded whole. The Var. are not all too difficult to execute; one should not let oneself be scared off by the many tailed notes, and the feared, overly large stretches that we had also complained about … in the past cannot be found here.
Those were the days for classical journalism.
Rosenbaum’s way with the work, without etch or ping, was simply lovely. He does not much reach out; you are to come to him.
Likewise Brahms’s Opus 118, another set of six short pieces. The hypnosis began here for me. Small bites, low drama, natural musicality, interiority of line, rich dynamics chiefly at the quieter end of things, subtle pedalings—soft and sustain—the combination proved irresistible, even with occasional pre-cadential pauses. Famous No. 2 hung in the Jordan air with “never heard the like” sound. No. 4’s canons were canonic. For the Romance (5), “entrancing” approaches the right word. No. 6 became otherworldly through inwardness. Altogether the performances showed how much Rosenbaum appreciates stillness in this noisy world, while judiciously meting out urgency and power.
The Schubert B-flat sonata, tranquil, consoling, private, continued the thrall. Sometimes Rosenbaum varied his touch such that it sounded as if different pianos were being mixed, brought forward and then receding. That was most noteworthy because his chosen Steinway had less of an upper-treble break (meaning effectively none) than any I’ve ever heard. In the first movement the rumbles of thunder on the distant horizon did not growl, and were not as distinct, as by other pianists. Violence lay low. But in the second movement the most magical, even shocking, of the modulations, to C, was more heartbroken than ever. The last two movements, which Rosenbaum recently pointed out must still have blood (I was so startled by the apt wording that I forget precisely what he said), were made worthy, as Brendel advises they must be.
Encores comprised four short pieces by contemporaneous colleague John Heiss, fondly regarded teacher, composer, flutist, and pianist. Highly lyrical, they were offered with manifest affection. And then to conclude, the charm of a Schubert waltz.
To return to fascinating matters of gustibus, other responses exist to Rosenbaum’s ways. A couple of piano recital veterans could be overheard taking exception to the lack of angularity, of eruptions, the veiled sonic conveyance within shades of gray. Eavesdropping: “You want to get smelling salts to him”; the Brahms felt “like going home: autumn foliage and pajamas.” The performer’s Schubert, and some Brahms including masterclass excerpts, are online, so judge for yourself. Listening to plodding parts of the Schubert recordings can feel like a bit of a chore when one is in comparison, consumer, or study mode. But in the presence of real-time creation, as with this recital, to experience if not necessarily live with, it’s hardly a chore at all for the proper frame of mind. So more than with some pianists, be advised to get in the mood for “poised, lyric, warm” playing (Steinberg) that “provide[s] an oasis of sense and order”. I certainly was.