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Session 21

Wednesday July 14, 2021

Yu Nitahara

One of two Japanese players to get this far, Nitahara took as his theme ‘Music born out of grief’, picking out two works that had their genesis in sad times for their respective composers. This musician used a Steinway sited at the University Mozarteum in Salzburg, recording his program on March 20. In the first instance, we heard Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor K 310, written near the time of his mother’s death and eventually showing marks of emotional stress. As a companion to this, Nitahara performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition suite, written about the art, and in memory, of his friend Viktor Hartmann.

As seems to be customary in performances of most Classical and Romantic era sonatas, Nitahara offered no repeat of the Mozart’s Allegro maestoso exposition: a shame as it would have given us another chance to relish his sparkling treatment of the Non piu andrai bars 45 to 49. Although perhaps he might have been better served observing the second repeat after a spot of fumbling almost amounting to a stoppage at bars 72 to 73; a memory lapse that came out of the blue in the middle of an easy-flowing performance of ceaseless phrasing variety and a consistency of dynamic across the movement’s canvas.

More eloquent contouring came with the right hand outline of Mozart’s Andante cantabile (no repeat here, either) which seems to me to be one of the composer’s most benevolent mid-sonata movements. You come across a darkness that could suggest mourning at bars 43 to 51, but you’d be straining to find tragedy at any other stretch of this chaste benevolence . Nitahara was weaving a fine web until a simple error crept in at bar 69; so close to the end but enough to jolt the listener from bathing in the player’s excellent negotiation of these pages. Then the Presto finale worked well for its subdued energy, even if the pace sounded forced. No repeats at the A Major interlude; God knows why not – the halves are brief enough. A few slight errors crept in during the later stages, yet this pianist came up with an engrossing realization of those urgent last 27 bars.

Unlike some competitors, Nitahara has a massive stretch, with the largest pair of hands I’ve come across for many years. Yes, it might have been over-emphasized because of the camera angle, but I doubt it – he’s just spectacularly blest. Well-equipped then for the multiple tests of Mussorgsky’s gallery visit. A forward-thrusting Promenade sprang straight into Gnomus where the Vivo bursts were taken too rapidly. No troubles with the remaining elements, but a pity that the final top G flat didn’t sound. An excellent delineation of The Old Castle followed, gifted with a subtle fore- and backgrounding of the G flat ostinato; many pianists don’t bother, just letting it function as a bland drone. Nitahara probably over-favoured the tenor line’s downward creep in the 9th and 10th last bars.

A Mozarteum piano, but at this point I was confirmed in a belief that the B4 was slightly out of tune. Not that you could pick it out that easily in the Tuileries movement, even if it appears at the top 12 times in the middle interlude. This interpretation saw Nitahara exercise an individuality of sorts, taking his short breaths where he saw fit and stopping the patterns from becoming mechanical. Bydlo came through with a ponderousness that you could not fault. I didn’t see the point of that small hesitation before entering bar 16 – there’s a harmonic change but it’s not worth inserting a small boulder in the wagon’s path. Approaching the end, the player left his diminuendo until too late, I felt; in my edition, it can start as far back as when the treble clef goes back into the bass.

Nitahara’s Dance of the Unhatched Chicks impressed for its ideal light touch and high interest level; always a wonder how Mussorgsky brings off this brilliant aural image and the performer met expectations with delectable crisp ornamentation. I’m always unsettled by The Two Jews, even if the achievement of character is strikingly successful. But this reading could not be faulted, showing a fine schizoid even-handedness across the Andante. Grave combination.

That muscular (and substantial in length) final Promenade preceded a bustling and accurate picture of the Limoges Market, loaded with pianistic chatter that later smacked of the relentless, the whole rounded off with a sweepingly active four final bars before the safe stasis of Catacombs and its trembling pendant, Con mortuis. Nothing much to say about these quiet passages of play, the dead minor-key promenaders rustling unhappily before the composer’s light-filled final promise. Baba-Jaga hurtled in, all her sforzandi intact and only a few notes misfiring in the last third before a driving rush to The Great Gate – a gift to every pianist but especially one who can negotiate the clangour when the bells start. This movement held an impressive, full-bodied grandeur about it, the chant interludes treated with respect rather than impatience, and the final Meno mosso‘s bounding minim triplets across the bar burst on us with their satisfying, swingeing mobility.

Artem Yasynskyy

One of two surviving Ukrainian players to make the semi-finals, Yasynskyy came to us from the Artesuono Studio in Cavalicco (I think it’s in Udine), recording his program on March 31. Another performer who spoke before each offering, Yasynskyy worked at a Fazioli (an F278 Mk III?) as he proffered a set of four rarely-heard works – and their lack of currency was his theme, I gather. He was spot-on with his assessment; I’d never come across any of these rarities: Britten’s early Holiday Suite Op. 5, Myroslav Skoryk’s Prelude and Fugue in F Major, Jehan Alain’s L’oeuvre de piano Tome III, and Josef Hofmann’s Characterskizzen Op. 40.

Yasynskyy spoke at some length about each of Britten’s four pieces but, when he got to the centre of the first – Early Morning Baths – the sunny aspect had clouded over; his approach was fittingly fluid and flashy in its clever slashes yet the piece was heavy-going – more boarding school showers than anything to be remembered with pleasure. From the opening, Sailing could have been softer in dynamic, if the score is any indication, and the player might have handled it with a good deal more leisure, even a lackadaisical approach; for instance, Yasynskyy’s rendition of the central part where the winds come on strongly was not whimsical at all – no mucking-around-in-boats here but a near-escape from the North Sea.

At the Fun Fair, again, the approach proved over-aggressive, without much bustling pleasure imparted. Britten’s exuberance dissipated under a Prokofiev-like determination so that some rows of booths and rides came over as more duty than delight. In sum, the piece sounded like a study. But Night resisted hard-dealing: a series of chords at either end of the keyboard, investing the fabric with calm – the whole accomplished very satisfactorily as the performer inserted the middle motifs in keeping with their surrounds: smoothly, the notes telling but not made over-important.

Skoryk is a fellow countryman of this pianist – well, he was, and Yasynskyy played for him early in his life. The work is an odd amalgam of your anticipated formal structure and jazz, the prelude making its way through some bluesy chords and sequences. The whole impresses as a very sophisticated form of improvisation, the free-wheeling jazz elements undercut by conservative patterns and procedures. More memories of Brubeck and the MJQ rose up during the fugue with a stride bass cutting in after the subject’s introduction. As far as I could tell, it was in three voices, all formally announced before a sort of continuing oscillation between technical procedures and Newport on a summer’s day.

I know very little of Alain’s music, apart from Litanies of 1937, which I first heard performed by the composer’s sister, Marie-Claire, in Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral – a memorable experience . His three Tomes of piano pieces seem to be collections from across his short compositional career and once more the performer gave introductions to each of the four in Volume III, although the content told us little about the individual pieces. Etude on a theme of 4 notes is just that, although its processes seemed more various than sticking to the title’s limitations; I’m sure a serious analysis would show the writer’s veracity. The piece is an atmospheric delight, leading past three discrete segments to a florid finale, negotiated with panache in spades. Second, a Petite Rhapsodie – half slow and half rapid – made little impression, apart from Yasynskyy’s taking liberties with the tempo, as though the option was left open whether or not to follow directions.

The same applied in the following piece based on Villon’s Ballade des pendus where the simplicity of its material begged for imposed interest, like a freedom of movement, reading accelerando in with crescendo, and storming through the admittedly massive treble chords at the piece’s highpoint . There’s a case to be made for fleshing out spartan material, of course: the whole early music scene relies on such dispensations. I’d like to hear this again, though, played straight. Finally, the Tarass Boulba piece left me nonplussed. It has the spectre of Bartok rearing over its block chords, coupled with Prokofiev for the work’s hurtling rigour. But what aspects of Gogol’s Cossack hero were meant to emerge, beyond galloping across the Zaporizhian countryside? Not a hindrance to Yasynskyy who gave it an idiosyncratic interpretation of impressive fervour.

Hofmann, reputedly the greatest pianist ever, was a prolific composer and this performer issued a CD in 2015 of some Hofmann works, including these Character Pieces. Naturally enough, the performances proved to be extremely proficient and authoritative. The first, Vision, showed Hofmann’s work to be a step-up from salon music, mainly because of its demands on technique with the executant most persuasive in the central Piu vivo e agitato – a chromatic-rich digital melting-pot. Then Jadis felt like a waltz/mazurka cross, most attractive in its surface matter but more conservative harmonically than late Chopin. Nevertheless, the interpretation impressed for its balance and the performer’s facility with the genre.

Nenien is a strange, elusive piece: melancholy, but with a spine. Not all of it sounded continuous – a sequence of linked parts, maybe – but it boasted page after page of passage work, a cut above the norm and congenial for Yasynskyy’s talents. And the collection came to a spectacular conclusion in Kaleidoskop: a piece calculated to round out an evening of fireworks with an almost uninterrupted chain of brilliant effects that begin with crisp energy and then move into a different room or two along the way before winding up in a festive clatter of over-lapping chords, a last zoom down and up, and a quick, widely-splayed cadence

I think all of us were happy to go along on this musician’s eclectic ride, taking in music we would never hear in the content-stratified (and even -stultified) recital halls of these times. Yet, for my taste, precious few of these scores live in the memory. All thanks to Yasynskyy and more power to his arm(s) but I’m not driven to investigate most of these, with the exception of Alain’s volumes. That’s the trouble with arcane music: it is what it is, even if for puerile, often unworthy reasons.