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When the Fingers Do the Thinking

New York
09/07/2019 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor (“Moonlight”) Opus 27, No. 2
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo No. 4 in E, Opus 54
Felix Mendelssohn: Variations sérieuses in D Minor, Opus 54
Franz Liszt: Transcendental Etude No. 9 in A-flat Major “Ricordanza”
Claude Debussy: L’Isle joyeuse

Sophia Agranovich (Pianist)

S. Agranovich at BargeMusic (© Samuel A. Dog)

The attraction of the virtuoso for the public is very like that of the circus for the crowd. There is always the hope that something dangerous will happen.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

An old slogan for the Yellow Pages read, “Let your fingers do the walking.” Last night, pianist Sophia Agranovich let her miraculous fingers do the walking, the running, the talking, the galloping, the bounding forward.

Rarely, though, did her fingers do the singing.

Ms. Agranovich has a fine international reputation, though I had never heard her in New York. So perhaps BargeMusic’s recital tonight was simply not the pianist at her best. One can always forgive mistakes in a recital, though the opening “Moonlight” had a sometimes chaotic second movement. (The Presto came through virtually error-free.)

Yet as the recital proceeded, one had the feeling that Ms. Agranovich was substituting her digital virtuosity for feeling, architecture, for breadth. BargeMusic audiences, usually tasteful and astute, here were seduced by Ms. Agranovich’s trills and octaves (amazing!), her hand-crossing expertise, her slamming down the forte keys and then tinkling the 32nd notes up and down the keyboard. In a way, BargeMusic was like their venue for cool cool jazz, as if they wanted to applaud the tricks and challenges. Eyes were fixed, not delighted, a cry of “Wow” greeted a dazzling coda of an otherwise unjoyful Debussy Isle of Joy.

We had two exceptional works on the program. Both of them had to have been études. Liszt’s 9th Transcendental Etude “Ricordanza” (“Remembrance”) was made for the virtuoso. One can’t imagine Liszt taking it too seriously. He probably played the cloying theme ever so lugubriously (winking at a lady in the fifth row), then launched into the fireworks. Ms. Agranovich used that same theme to show her mastery of the keyboard register, making it an exercise in digital dexterity.

The encore was Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, and the pianist played it not only with bravura but with true clarity.

The other works were physically impressive. But little else. The “Moonlight” began rather lackadaisically, but was pretty enough until the second movement. It moved (when the notes weren’t confused), but–in Shakespeare’s phrase–both movements “were scoured to nothing with perpetual motion.”

I wish that the pianist’s physical expertise had been put to use in Chopin’s E Major Scherzo. It is enigmatic by itself, but by the middle, one understands the song and the feeling. Yet again, this was not so much a structure as a series of dazzling phrases. It would be cruel to say that the work was un-bar-able, but one simply didn’t feel the measures, the buildup.

We were fortunate this week in hearing two of Mendelssohn’s most beautiful works. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center played the Octet in a PBS documentary with unerring skill. Sophia Agranovich started the Serious Variations simply enough (though one does wish for a more stolid start), and then let the fingers fly through all the variations, all of Mendelssohn’s skills, with hands alternating, with pixie-runs and trills.

At times during this recital, one wanted the pianist to slow down–not in acceleration but in looking around at the depth, variety, almost humility in her digital skills. If one felt at times that, instead of playing Chopin and Mendelssohn, she was offering Carl Czerny...well, Czerny is pretty impressive stuff for any pianist. Hopefully, in this writer’s humble opinion, Sophia Agranovich may sacrifice the grandeur of her fingers for the immensity of the music.

Harry Rolnick



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