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In and Out with Legendary Lowenthal


Jerome Lowenthal

When Jerome Lowenthal first sat at the Steinway in Seully Hall Tuesday, expectations loomed high. At concert end, “I will not be playing an encore but rather will recite a poem.” After a few of Verlaine’s lines came Debussy’s Clair de Lune, all of it. Earlier, Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy would hug each other as if hyphens appeared between the three key-related pieces.

It was in and out with Lowenthal. The 85-year old showed no weakening in any way as he often barreled through a weird but welcome media mix often outside the usual classical recital menus.

A lightly lagging right hand melody in the Mozart Adagio in B Minor K. 540 said so much with so few notes, and so did searing yet subtly sounded harmony. Strong, forceful bass announcements in octaves put together with tender treble replies lifted Mozart’s mature expression into the realm of Lowenthal’s musicality and humanity.

As to those simple Mozartian interior accompaniments as well as those well-traveled classical transitions, Lowenthal’s sleight of hand tricks, if you will, conjured all the more magic. This could be witnessed in both the Adagio and the Six Variations on “Salve tu, Domine” K. 398.

Each of these two Mozart brevities was paired with a grander piece of Chopin. These sets followed in the vein of the classical musical directive, attacca, where the performer begins the next movement of a composition immediately and without pause. A jarring moment arose each time this occurred, also a moment for which to be thankful as Lowenthal spared listeners several rounds of sidetracking applause.

The first of these pairings included Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, op. 20 and the second, the Ballade No. 2 in F Major, op. 38. What the knowledgeable Lowenthal had in mind beyond the B minor and F major key connections, which, by the way, form the interval known in early music history as diabolus in musica, or the devil in music, became clearer and clearer as his pairings unfolded in Seully’s fine space.

Chopin, though, came up on the dry side if not something of a blur. Tonal uniformity surprised. Rubato, a Robin Hood type of stealing a little time here and returning a little there, seemed played down. Freedom in Chopin’s terms apparently was adverse to a trendy motoric obstinacy. Neither the Scherzo nor the Ballade faced a deeply dynamic mobility, rather assuming more of an in-the-moment continuum.

By the way, the second pairing did not just stop with the Ballad, enter General Lavine—Eccentric (from Préludes Book 2) of Debussy, which is also in F major. Here, the General takes tl standing “at attention!” Suggesting cinematic animation, the General’s expeditious marching was striking for its electrifying robotics and ultra-speed.

In an arrangement for piano, Aubade (“Concerto choregraphique”), Lowenthal offered an overflowing of bold strokes. Even in the recitatives was there little space for reflection, for taking a breath of refreshment. This was Francis Poulenc, fast and furious, surpassing speeds even less common to piano soundtracks to silent movies. Help came from a third hand needed for the overly long ostinato close. Lowenthal reminded us that Poulenc asked that for purely instrumental performances the storyline to his piece be disregarded. Lowenthal then went on to tell us he would “disregard” Poulenc’s request and do some storytelling during his playing anyway.  

More Mozart, Fantasy in D Minor, K. 397, and more Lowenthal at his best. His ruminating arpeggios caught hold allowing ensuing instances of varying light to shine softly through. What puzzled were those long scalar runs with not a twist or a nuance leaving dexterity gleaming in its own limelight.

A final pairing came with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Minor. Melody-centric, this interpretation held one’s ears to the score but not without questions that would ultimately result in an outing more for the brain than the heart.  

His encore, Claire de Lune, again featured melody at the expense of harmonic texturing and hueing. One obvious experiment seemed to have the heart fluttering on those repeated chords that are moving toward the first climactic point (second page of the score). This was Debussy the Romanticist.

Has there ever been disappointment with the highly engaging, often surprising, and certainly informative Piano Masters Series over its many years? Appreciation goes to artistic director Michael Lewin and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

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).

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