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Pianist P. Jumppanen

New York
The Frick Collection
10/08/2017 -  
Claude Debussy: Twelve Etudes
William Duckworth: The Time Curve Preludes (Book I): No. 1, 2, 3, 4 & 7
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F minor “Appassionata”, opus 57

Paavali Jumppanen (piano)

P. Jumppanen (© Nina Siven)

There are sometimes instances when a flabbergasted music critic or reviewer encounters a performer previously unknown to him and he asks himself: “why was this artist off my radar?” which in turn prompts him instead to ask “where was this artist all my life?” That was exactly my feeling when I finally heard a pianist live who for far too long was off my radar, though his name, Paavali Jumpannen, was known to me.

I am ashamed to admit that prior to his recital at the Frick Collection, I neither knew much about him nor had I come into contact with his growing discography that by now includes works as diverse as the complete sets of Beethoven sonatas for piano and Sonatas for piano and violin, as well as all three Boulez piano sonatas. On the other hand, that “ignorance” freed me to listen without any prejudice and without expectations; not the worst thing, considering we often come to a concert with a preconceived idea of an artist and all the good or bad he has to offer. His program for this recital showed not only his varied interests but also his audacity to present it in a place traditionally not known for adventurous programming.

He started with a formidable challenge: to perform a complete set of Twelve Etudes by Claude Debussy. Written between 1911 and 1915, these etudes also represent one of the composer’s last works. Unlike Liszt or Rachmaninov, Debussy was not a piano virtuoso and by the time he wrote the Etudes, he was not performing much. And though he was never a great virtuoso, these Etudes present a real challenge for any pianist. Here, the composer develops a new technique of playing, one that has no precedence in traditional hand position or fingering.

Just as with the Chopin Etudes, where each etude presents a specific technical problem for the performer, the Debussy Etudes explore different possibilities: the use of only eight fingers, excluding the thumb, chromatic scales, double fourths, octaves or chords, the last one demanding the most treacherous and riskiest of jumps. Yet each one of them is as intense, as colorful, and as sensual as anything in Debussy’s output. The Etudes were written right after the completion of the 24 Preludes and an unfamiliar listener could very well mistake one for another: they share the same charm, humor, and wit.

I was bowled over by Mr. Jumppanen’s performance. First of all his tonal control and subtlety of touch permitted one to forget that the piano is a percussive instrument. His gentle caressing of the keyboard, barely touching the keys, his absolute command of dynamics were truly astonishing. To that one has to add total technical authority which allowed him to avoid myriad pianistic problems that confront any courageous performer.

I am not in favor of playing either the Preludes or Etudes as a complete set. Not that it is boring but rather because there is so much to admire in them and after a while the details start to blur: there is not enough time to digest the whole array of sonic wonders. It is possible that with this configuration of a program, intercepting them with other works, just for variety’s sake, would not work. Well, it is a very insignificant complaint and one has to mention that the audience listened in rapture: there was not even one cough!

Jumppanen, who feels equally at home in classical and modern repertory and who champions some contemporary composers, opened the second half of his recital with a sample of miniatures called The Time Curve Preludes (1978) by William Duckworth (1943-2012), an American composer, author, educator and Internet pioneer. The Time Curve Preludes consists of 24 brief, aphoristic pieces, many just a couple minutes in length: we heard only a few, from Book I. Before playing each of the preludes, the pianist has to depress one or a several keys with small weights, which creates a subtle presence of drones and allows the strings of the piano to vibrate, forming serene echoes. These were called “sympathetic vibrations” and Mr. Jumppanen, who worked closely with the composer, explained this specific “treatment” before giving us a sample of just five preludes. The music itself written by a composer known as “post-minimalist,” presents repetitious minimalistic snippets, where, however, the harmonies change quite quickly and irregularly. We hear some influences of bluegrass, in others medieval chant, which I’d associate with someone such as Arvo Pärt, elsewhere something resembling one of Debussy’s preludes. Ultimately, these compositions proved very listenable, creating something of a hypnotic mood.

Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor known as Appassionata concluded the program. It is one Beethoven’s most dramatic works and in Mr. Jumppanen’s own words the piece is “brimming with tragic power...undoubtedly Beethoven’s darkest and most aggressive work”. Here we were offered a chance to observe yet another facet of this original musician, who obviously doesn’t approach this score lightly. The piano sound became much crisper, precise and, yes, in moments, aggressive, for he takes sudden dynamic changes in the score quite literally. I was impressed by the declamatory character of the opening movement and the oratorical expression created by separating phrases and allowing the silence to make its impact.
I am not often convinced by tempo fluctuation in performances of Beethoven’s scores, especially when not called for. This was a Romantic tradition that still persists; some players slow down the music that the composer has already slowed down by using larger note values. But Mr. Jumppanen doesn’t seem to be an impulsive player and his meticulous, painstaking studies of the scores lead me to believe that there is a rationale behind his decision-making. It happened not only in the first movement when the second theme appears, but even more surprisingly in the second movement Andante con moto in the form of theme and variations. Here each subsequent variation is written in smaller note values; yet surprisingly our pianist sought to play each increasingly faster. I also felt the character of moto perpetuo in the final movement Allegro ma non troppo a tad too hasty, relentless yet played with utmost clarity and strict adherence to Beethoven’s markings. In the coda marked Presto, it had all the vehemence and excitement and astonishing accuracy in playing the whirlwind of ever faster notes. So if perhaps not my ideal version of the Appassionata, at least one that gained my deference. There were no encores after that performance.

As I noted at the beginning, this superb pianist had not shown up on my “musical radar” before I attended this recital. From now on he definitely will! When given a chance I will gladly peruse his recording of complete Beethoven Sonatas and I am sure I shall find there a plentitude of original ideas. Mr. Jumppanen gained my great admiration for his fantastic command of the keyboard and my great respect for his intelligence, inquisitive mind, and vastness of interests: it is worthwhile to check out his website and discover what a wonderful writer he is as well. I am definitely looking forward to his upcoming project of presenting Bach’s mighty Art of the Fugue, if he ever is asked to play it to New York. As for his upcoming recording of the complete Debussy Preludes, sight-unseen, I would urge any collector to grab it: if it is anything like the Etudes we heard last Sunday, we are in for a treat!

Paavali Jumppanen’s Website

Roman Markowicz



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