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Gilles Vonsattel's

New York
Barge Music, Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn
04/18/2014 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Six Bagatelles, Opus 126
George Benjamin: Shadow Lines: Six Canonic Preludes
Franz Liszt: Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S. 173: “Pensée des morts”
Olivier Messiaen: Huit Préludes: “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu”
Heinz Holliger: Partita
Frederic Rzewski: Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues

Gilles Vonsattel (Pianist)

G. Vonsattel (© John Solem)

Beneath the tough, spiny, seemingly disconnected program devised by Swiss-American pianist Gilles Vonsattel last night was a well-formed structure. Béla Bartók might have called that structure the “game of twos.”

First were two sets of bagatelles, from Beethoven and George Benjamin. Second were two adjacent thoughts of death, by Franz Liszt and the early Olivier Messiaen. Finally were two works from living acknowledged Leftists. The philosophical dialectic Hegelian Heinz Holliger, and the rip-roaring “down-with-the-capitalist-bosses” Frederic Rzewski.

The result was not an easy program by any means. But the meticulous, literal (sometimes dry) Mr. Vonsattel was up to the task. A few works of introduction to the music, then excellent technical expertise in bringing the notes to fruition. And if the full-house audience at BargeMusic was sometimes baffled by the eclectic selections, they didn’t show it, giving rapt attention to Mr. Vonsattel’s performance.

This was my first time hearing the pianist in public, although he has been playing for several decades both in Europe and America. His work rarely shines or gleams, but there is a sense of integrity which is rare. His opening of the Beethoven Bagatelles could have been performed on Beethoven’s own Broadwood piano. The pedals were used sparingly, the works, sometimes jolting, sometimes highly lyrical, were played without extra oomph, but with a quiet literalism.

To follow this with George Benjamin’s own Canonic Preludes might have been a bit unfair to the living composer. Mr. Benjamin is best known as a symphonist, and these ardent works, were a distinct parting of the ways. They were not only atonal, but had a complexity, outside of their canonic form, which was difficult at first hearing to comprehend. This was more the fault of this listener than either composer or pianist obviously. For the works each had a propulsion, a richness and a sense of organic buildup. Mr. Vonsattel apparently played them with the right nuance. But without prior experience or score, only my ears told that.

The two absolutely gripping works were by Messiaen and Liszt. In fact, Messiaen’s chimes of anguish and tears were just that. This was an early work, without birdcalls or overly religious overtones, and, outside of Messiaen’s usual whole-tone harmonies, could have been written by Debussy or Franck. The atmospheres didn’t need the religious references to seem sacred.

Almost as sacred, in fact, as Liszt’s work, which preceded this and was given without applause between the two. Within one week, two of Liszt’s finest works had been heard here. Obviously Ms. Uchida’s B Minor Sonata. But Mr. Vonsattel’s “death thoughts” from “Religious and Poetic Harmonies” was given an emotional performance which was rare indeed. The piece itself is not simply a single work, but unifies many sections, running the gamut from the agitated to the other-worldly. Toward the end, Mr. Vonsattel let himself go forward without Swiss efficiency. Instead, he held his notes down carefully, used the pedal to produce a church-like atmosphere.

Most puzzling of the works was Heinz Holliger’s Partita. Almost as enigmatic as Mr. Holliger himself. The world’s finest oboist by far, a student and collaborator with Pierre Boulez, a noted Leftist (he had once denied me an interview in Hong Kong, since I was an American, and by nationality, a Vietnam War criminal), and a very complex composer.

His Partita, the longest piece on the program, was partly dedicated to Bach, partly reminiscent of Schumann, it had “sphinx” movements played directly on the strings, and a Barcorolla, which was anything but Offenbach-ish. Taking a quote from the poet Frederich Hölderlin. “We should let ourselves be cradled/As if on a boat rocking on the sea.’ Mr. Holliger began with a rocking barcarolle movement and abruptly went into a pianistic sprechstimme.

It was held together with a three-note interval, and even in the most complex passages, Mr. Vonsattel retained that sound. The end, with a very soft song on the inner strings was very touching.

Nothing was complex about Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. One couldn’t quite imagine a Swiss pianist able to get those bluesy notes just right, but the mechanical endless machinery-passages of the cotton mill were given with a grinding intensity. But Mr. Rzewski is such a picturesque composer and Mr. Vontattel such a fine expondent one began to get an evocation of the American worker, ground down by machines, his tedium excised only by the music created on the job.

Harry Rolnick



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