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Daniel Gortler Reaches for the Maverick


Daniel Gortler (file photo)

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” Robert Browning tells us. It’s good advice, worth taping to your mirror. But when we take in a solo recital, we want to hear a person who’s achieved the grasp and does the reaching on weekdays. At Maverick on Sunday afternoon, Israeli pianist Daniel Gortler seemed, throughout his performance, to be over-reaching. We applaud his effort, but feel that he gave short shrift to the music, along with the Maverick audience. It all seemed labored.

The second half encompassed Schubert’s great last sonata. The unusual first half featured 15 of Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. Grieg’s 66 lovely bijoux are character pieces that should sparkle and glow, flutter and alight, skip and traipse. Gortler’s 15, alas, did not. They all sounded similar in their leaden execution. We kept thinking, “Well, the next one will be better.” It wasn’t. Nor was the next, nor the next. What should have been an elegant web spun with the greatest delicacy around brilliant gems gave the impression of busy fingers. Gortler has reasonable technique, but it failed to achieve the lightness and grace that Grieg requires. He achieved plenty of pounding, hesitation in the wrong places, and unsteady tempi in an altogether wooden take on what should be fashioned of sunlight and shadow. We sighed and felt grateful when the intermission arrived.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 stands as one of the pillars of Western music, indeed of all Western art. Unfortunately, it appeared that Gortler was straining for something just out of his reach. We commend his effort (a man’s reach, exceed, etc.), but not his choice to bring it to the Maverick. He managed, with a good deal of effort, to hit most of the notes of this colossal work; we found ourselves grateful that he did not take the repeats. He strewed the colossally sad Andante sostenuto second movement with distracting, contrived, and unnecessary rubati. We are aware of the deep emotions being mined and deployed; we don’t need to hear them underlined them with random stretching of the tempi and affected gestures of the performer’s head.

Schubert composed the two final movements when only a month or two away from his death at 32. These nostalgic allegri seem to deny the inevitable — they cry out to be played with panache and with carefree tenderness, like dances on the edge of the abyss. But in Gortler’s hands they betokened only the vast effort it took him to hit all those fast notes in the right order.

We were surprised several times during the playing to see the pianist turn away from the audience, bending down to take a drink from his water bottle, which was on the floor to his left. We have, in a lifetime of concert-going, never seen such. Not in the middle of a piece, not between movements. Even singers, who, heaven knows, need to keep their pipes lubricated, don’t do it while in the midst of a big work. Orchestra and chorus members can get away with it, if they’re in the back row and it’s a small bottle and nobody minds. But not a soloist. It just isn’t done. It’s about the music, sir, not about what it will take to get you through the next 40 or so minutes.

Mary Fairchild lives in Rosendale, New York, after a long career as a host at WQXR, WNYC, WMHT (Schenectady), and WPLN (Nashville). She has for some 20 years been writing program notes for Vladimir Feltsman’s PianoSummer at New Paltz. Before being called by Kalliope, the Muse of Eloquence and of Writing About Music, she worked as a financial editor and manager of investor relations in Wall Street.

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