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Sublimity From Bass


Jonathan Bass enthralled and delighted Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall with virtuosity and emotional profundity in his March 28th piano recital. Before playing, he gave a brief explanation of the evening’s program and spoke of his gratitude for returning to the piano after recent back surgery. He also shared thoughts about the pandemic and compared our sad collective loss of live music with Beethoven’s increasing deafness. Beethoven wrote Opus 101 at a time when his hearing was largely gone, yet the only time he attended a performance of any of his 32 sonatas, was when a banker played 101. This sonata also marked the beginning of his increasingly profound and existential late compositions. During this period Beethoven began a serious study of the works of Bach and took a contrapuntal turn.

In  Opus 101, Beethoven  included suggested moods for the four movements. The first, marked innigsten Empfindung (innermost sensitivity), is perhaps the most loving and tender movement in sonatas. The dedication to Dorothea Ertmann, a favorite pupil of his, may give a clue to his inspiration. Expressive without being showy, Bass captured the complete loveliness of these passages. Emotion seemed to emanate straight from his heart and the page.

Marschmäßig (march-like) sounds exuberant and playful, but even here sweet, dolce moments reward us.  Bass dispatched the quick Beethovenian transitions in temperament, tempo, and dynamics with ease. Sehnsuchsvoll (longingly) began very quietly before transitioning into a tender dialogue of two conversing voices. The end of this movement goes back to the beginning motif of the first movement and leads immediately into the finale, in which a complicated fugato poses the technically most challenging part of the sonata. Bass employed very little pedal throughout, keeping the lines clear and transparent.

Chopin dedicated his second Ballade to Robert Schumann, composing much of it in Majorca, along with his famous 24 Preludes. Some cite the poem Świtezianka, about a water nymph and the young man who falls for her charms and is swallowed in her lake, as his inspiration. The Idyllic F major Andantino has a lulling effect but ends abruptly. A subsequent con fuoco passage causes one’s heart to skip a beat in one of the most violent and stormy passages in the repertoire.

Howard Frazin wrote Overture to the Moon and Stars in 2022, during the pandemic when, according to the composer “we were all losing our footing.” After the forceful beginning, we heard many transitions. In quiet moments, the right hand conjured up moonbeams, but the tonalities remained unresolved as if contemplating so many unanswered questions.  The composer took a bow to heartfelt applause, and in a later conversation allowed that Bass had provided some helpful input.

Bass began the second half with two short pieces by the African American composer George Walker, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1996.  Prelude at times reminded one of Debussy; Caprice employs Jazz and American themes and ends flamboyantly. Both date back to the 1940’s.

Claude Debussy revolutionized Western music with his incorporation of Asian scales. Bass delivered an unforgettable Reflects dans l’eau from Images, Book I, with his lightning fast arpeggios, always even and fluid, conjuring water. His pianissimos sounded nearly inaudible, showing his tremendous control over the dynamic range. The illusion of watery swirls and raindrops were visceral, all veiled into the mists by skillful pedaling.

Liszt’s wildly virtuosic tone poem  Après une lecture du Dante wrestles with the contest of good versus evil. Bass nailed the creepy and demonic beginning and also the sublime mood of heavenly Andante dolcissimo con Amore later on.  His precise ascending and descending octave passages landed cleanly even in the frequent fortissimos. His tone never turned strident or harsh. Bass’s total mastery inspired awe.

Thunderous applause and a chorus of cheers and bravos earned two encores: Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca No. 123, and the Chopin Mazurka Opus 17 No. 4, in which he delivered the best performance this reviewer has ever heard.

Sibylle Barrasso is a long time piano student of Robert Poli. She has played in piano competitions in Pickman Hall and Chicago, is on the board of directors of the Boston Piano Amateurs Association and has played for audiences in the Boston Symphony Cafe for over ten years.

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