Frequenter of the Sunday matinées at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Paavali Jumppanen yesterday played Debussy, Bartók, and Boulez before a smallish crowd of must-be 20th-Century music enthusiasts if not also fans of the Finnish pianist.
This might already be tops for the year when we were only halfway-through. Jumppanen’s program, his presence, and his performance exceeded not just everyday kinds of musical outings, but easily went beyond those formidable few in Boston that come to pass in this star-studded stop.
At 38, this still-young keyboard whiz has grown remarkably over the years that I have been hearing him at the Gardner. “20th Century Classics,” as the unusually spiffy three-concert brochure has it—all by those composers above-named—began last week and will conclude on March 5th. So, whether it is a triple threat or triple treat, it deserves laud and honor for adventurous programming enriched with meaning.
Claude Debussy’s Children’s Corner Suite is music well-known to many. Doctor Gradus and Parnassum totally transcended the composer’s etudinous reference. Uncommon beauty flowed from these Finnish fingers with keyed-in joyousness to savor. The usually slow moving Jimbo’s Lullaby glowed with echoing jolliness, a suspenseful episode, and a lovingly nodding off before sleep. For Serenade for the Doll, Jumppanen began showing the doll as stationary and then as song abounding in colorful, nuanced imagery.
Snow is Dancing came with keen pedaling and accenting. The flute in The Little Shepherd proved central to Jumppanen’s pastoral concept; he imbued that melody with song beyond all expectations, never mind performances given by kids, I mean all the way through to artists. Why did Scott Joplin come to mind when listening to Jumppanen’s playing of Golliwogg’s Cakewalk. His take sounded so refined tonally, while ever so full of rhythmic ingenuities.
No surprise to learn that upon hearing this pianist, that Pierre Boulez asked him to record his own Troisième Sonate pour Piano. Following Jumppanen’s traversal, one listener remarked, “That’s not an easy piece to play, is it.” Much intellectual commentary is usual fare for this mathematically driven work, which burrows through labyrinthine structures. What is the work’s meaning is most often asked.
Jumppanen informed us that Boulez demanded half-lid to allow quiet resonances to be heard with greater persistence and clarity. And so noises, coughs, folding paper, shuffling, even talking if you can believe it—all perfectly fine for John Cage—would be anathema to Boulez. Profound devotion to every keyboard stroke, pedal action, sympathetic vibrations (those resonances) from Jumppanen summoned supreme attention. Off to another universe we were taken. Meaning? A galaxy of wonder: that is what Jumppann made of Boulez.
And with Im Freien or Outdoors Suite by Béla Bartók an already magnificent afternoon would be further elevated. Too many pianists’ way with Bartók especially in this work, glorifies the maniacal, occludes light, and focuses on ferocity. How rewarding that Jumppanen went another route. The opening to Drums and Pipes exploded in striking fashion with vitalized bass percussion. Barcarolla magnificently murmured. The Musettes did take to adventurous, scary trills—never evil ones. And when terror struck, it somehow infiltrated abiding security verging on joy.
Jumppanen turned Night’s Music into a forest of creatures talking sometimes singing in Hungarian-Romanian dialects, as the persisting ostinato channeled nocturnal mysteries. With electrically charged hands, feet accentuating pedals and floor, Paavali Jumppanen thrilled in the finale, The Chase.
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net