All who love exalted pianism in styles of yesteryear—sonically opulent, variously hued, often probingly voiced—owe it to themselves to hear Victor Rosenbaum. To celebrate his 50th year on the NEC faculty (where he arrived as teacher of theory and composition), the 76-year-old gave an all-Beethoven recital Sunday night. Again and again the richest of tones lingered, shining, in the resonant air of Jordan Hall. From A-flat to A-flat, we heard the Sonata Opus 26, the Opus 126 Bagatelles, and the Sonatas Opus 90 and 110, the composer 30 to 54 years old. A large audience returned considerable warmth and affection.
I always enjoy the experience of listening to Rosenbaum; this is my third recent review of his work and I have come to terms with his unflashy approaches. Conceived mostly small, and so oddly even as to be somewhat samy across the board, it is pausal as well: start and stop, moment by beautiful moment. The pianist does not actively favor sound over direction, but the performances often feel wanting in forward motion.
The first half’s pieces are comparatively episodic; the early sonata with theme and variations and other short structures, followed by the Bagatelles, brief experimental statements intended to be delivered as a group. Few would mind any lack of goal-seeking. Opus 26, precisely and lovingly parsed, was fully as effective as Ian Watson’s HIPper rendition three months ago, the racing finale moreso. In the Bagatelles Rosenbaum emphasized their poignancy more than their quirky wit.
I attended with a veteran orchestra member who has decades of high-level woodwind experience with brand-name colleagues and conductors. It can be bracing for a locally partial lay reviewer to hear from disinterested musicians. While admiring the acoustic production, he was not smitten. “Listen to how regularly Rosenbaum pauses. In practically every measure. It’s like playing from the 1940s. And most of his phrases go the same: start quiet, crescendo middle, ritard. Over and over.” (A frequent concertgoer responded to that analysis with, “Well, that describes a lot of piano playing”.) Finally, “that sonorous left hand is dominating the right, due partly to the acoustics”.
The hands nicely rebalanced in the second half.
It is good that the two-movement (Hans von Bülow labeled it speech then song) Opus 90 has become popular. From the start the pianist offered none of the “liveliness” Beethoven asks for—Rosenbaum’s “speaking” made for grave, studied, slowly emphasized drama (Tovey did call the first movement lonely), the gestures similar—and his second-movement singing again proceeded moment by moment. That movement, Schubertian not only in exquisiteness of melody but also in length and repetitiveness (Schubert was 17 when Opus 90 appeared and he surely absorbed it), “cost Beethoven much trouble. The coda is magical and full of mystery” (Michael Steinberg). But even under new management, the sonata remained affecting.
Opus 110, from choral opening to the closing fugues, is the most explicitly Bach-influenced of the sonatas. Two years ago I heard the artist give a most stirring reading of it. This time the micro-halts in the opening phrases disrupted flow (listen here to see if you agree). Clearly Rosenbaum feels it in this way. The result is not single-dimensional due to attention to lyrical edges, but I maintain the piece must gather force as it goes, should look ahead with some drive, at least as much as reflect again and again. The motives and intervals for the fugues are to be found at the outset (as is so common with Beethoven); it’s not as though he wrote long melodies, which can stand some stop-start drama since they’re a line. These fugues were sometimes sectional.
Regardless—and this may sound like damning with faint praise—as moving sound, the playing was of the most haunting beauty, richer than any other performance, and the second fugue’s opening notes became suspensions quieter than I have ever experienced in that space or most others. The pianist’s fine printed note spoke of the work’s “glorious conclusion that conveys the power of life over death”. Amen.
For his encore Victor Rosenbaum nobly shaped the Opus 13 (Pathétique) Sonata’s Adagio cantabile.
David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.