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Awadagin Pratt: Old-Master Richness

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At 53 the distinguished Pittsburgh-born pianist and professor Awadagin Pratt is not old in years, but at Seully Hall Tuesday he gave an old-master keyboard performance of a sort seldom heard in recitals. Maybe that’s why we noticed so many prominent local pianists in attendance.

Who starts an evening with Beethoven Opus 110? From the serious, soft opening chords, Pratt rendered it with unusual stillness and gravity, deliberate and deliberative, the phrasing emphatic and with more rubato than we are used to, albeit naturally gauged and small-scale. I kept speculating that Busoni probably sounded like this. Some of the playing had a slightly labored quality, another throwback characteristic. Pratt does not attempt anything he cannot do, and will slightly dial down tempo as needed. Indeed, he may be a musician who no longer spends hours polishing passagework and sharpening his technique. It is plenty formidable, with zero banging no matter what, yet not at the hygiene level of the dozens of young superstar pianists where all is dazzlingly note-perfect.

But the sound. Pratt’s everywhere rich voicings came off even in level across the hands and the fingers, with little melody-leading, enriched further by rapid flutter of the sustain pedal. Big hesitations and silences likewise expressed riches. An enormous dynamic range encompassed grave quiet to immense thunder — I’ve never heard the problematic, low-dimensional Seully Hall roar so. Beethoven’s second fugue began in pin-drop softness but powered itself to the grandest of conclusions, Pratt’s righthand ringing out on high while the composer rocks and rumbles underneath. (The performance was notably superior to a long-ago Pratt recording of the sonata.)

What a recital start.

The Franck Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue should be heard more often, although the composer still has detractors — “those constant modulations,” winced one recital veteran. In addition to changing harmony, Franck in Pratt’s hands also transformed identity: the opening smeary Debussy wash, through-pedaled so to speak, morphed into Brahmsian chorale congestion, with the ensuing fugue treated like what Busoni does to Bach and eventually culminating in a hot, Scriabin-like mess. (I’m using “congestion” and “hot mess” in their good senses.)

I tried to think of previous pianistic experiences. Everyone has heard late Horowitz at his loud and peculiar thickest; this was better than that. Richter’s chords shook rooms and almost buildings, reportedly. Within my own concertgoing, Arrau in late career came closest to Pratt on this night: massive, thickly granitic, also delicate, interior and exploratory, but also down-to-earth, with none of Arrau’s insufferable ponderosity.

After break came the Liszt Sonata. Even if the piano master were not a big guy, with big production, that work would have been eagerly awaited, since Pratt’s hair is strikingly Lisztian, only in dreads. Again we got a deliberately paced read, equal loudnesses contrasting with ravishing, poetic quiets, lots of intermodulation (more congestion in the good sense), and many measures sounding somehow as though transposed down an octave. Again Pratt avoided anything he could not do, as sometimes does not happen in this lengthy, difficult, highly recursive journey. Swept along amid the torrents and waves of Liszt’s sonic and religious beliefs, I was more than once reminded of Auden’s haiku “He has never seen God, / but, once or twice, he believes / he has heard Him.” Well after the two still, closing chords died out — and I would swear Pratt omitted the following low B which signals the end — the audience finally could not stay in their seats.

I would relish hearing a recording of this recital.

Like a pour of cool amontillado came the encore, jazz composer Fred Hersch’s arpeggiated Nocturne for Lefthand Alone.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

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