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Jerome Lowenthal or a Miracle on East River

New York
11/18/2016 -  
Béla Bartók: 14 Bagatelles, opus 6, Sz. 38 – Szabadban, Sz. 81
Fryderyk Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, op. 35 – Mazurka in C-minor, op. 56 No. 3 – Nocturne in E-minor, op. posth. – Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major, op. 47

Jerome Lowenthal (Piano)

J. Lowenthal (© Courtesy of the artist)

It is not easy to understand why some musicians enjoy huge careers well into their later years while others, equally if not more deserving, do not. It seems to me that one such unsung hero of the keyboard is Jerome Lowenthal, who in just two months as of this writing will celebrate his 85th birthday.

Nowadays Mr. Lowenthal apparently is limiting his New York City performances to a very few venues and one of them happens to be Bargemusic, where from time to time one can hear this extraordinary pianist either in solo or in chamber music. His recent recital was one of those rare privileges. I have not encountered in recent decades many pianists whose purely technical skills at such a venerable stage of life were equally intact. Lowenthal is one of those precious few. He offered a demanding program devoted to just two composers close to him: Bartók and Chopin. While he used the score for the first of the Bartók works, he rarely looked at it, and the second, even more demanding Out of Doors Suite he played from memory. I mention this because many musicians, especially pianists of advancing age, rarely undertake such difficult music.

As is often his custom, the pianist offered his eager audience comments about the music, which he presented with wit and an often deadpan manner. About the Bartók Bagatelles opus 6 he told us that in 1908 Ferruccio Busoni, enthusiastic about the score, exclaimed that “finally we have something new!”. Then Lowenthal briefly described the nature of several of these miniatures which at the time of composition were quite evolutionary works exploring such novel techniques as bitonality. Bartók himself had confessed that several of the bagatelles were outright experiments in which he pushed piano writing beyond what his most forward-thinking contemporaries were doing. Mr. Lowenthal delivered sophisticated, nuanced, incisive, multi-colored playing with myriads of texture and sudden changes of mood. What was also astonishing was the accuracy and vitality of playing.

One had to admire the comic talent of this soft-spoken pianist who in describing the learning process of the next work on the program, Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, hilariously imitated the demands that were put forth by each of the three masters for whom he played that work in his youth. Not even William Kapell, tragically killed in an airplane crash and whom Lowenthal adored, was spared (“he wanted everything “agitato!!!”...except when he wanted “less agitato!!!!”). His next famous teacher was Eduard Steuermann who at first didn’t want some of the sonata sections to be played “dolente” but later requested that it should be...you guessed, “more dolente!”. The last such stab was reserved for Alfred Cortot whom Lowenthal imitated in French. One may add that both Kapell and Cortot left for posterity their own recordings of the sonata and both versions remain in their own way definitive.

The most important aspect of the performance remained a very convincing concept of the sonata presented by our ageless pianist. Lowenthal sees this four-movement work as one un-interrupted chain and tied all of its parts together. It was perhaps an unconventional but not unconvincing approach. Chopin supposedly referred to the sonata’s four movements (the famous Marche funčbre was written a few years before the other three) as “my four most unruly children”. That volatile character dominated Lowenthal’s passionate performance. He opted for the recently adopted repeat of the four-measure Grave, a decision not uniformly shared by present-day pianists. His command of the keyboard would have been astounding for a pianist half his age, but it was not all about technique or accuracy. The agitated development section of the Allegro sounded like an angry dialogue and the tension built inexorably with an impressive left hand. Seldom has this movement sounded as convincing as it did that evening. The Scherzo was ferocious; for once, its outer parts and middle section didn’t sag, didn’t loose its flow. A technical imperfection here or there only added to the feeling of spontaneity. The Marche funčbre was also taken at a quicker than usual pace and its fortissimo outburst created a further sense of impatience and fury. One had to admire Lowenthal’s undiminished finger facility and how well he maneuvered the unison figures of the final Presto, which Chopin described as “chatting after the march”.

The second part of the recital reversed the order of composers; Chopin groups, played without pause, preceded Bartók’s Suite Out of Doors. The Ballade in A-flat received an original and passionate treatment, with some inner voices illuminated and its persistent lilting rhythm etched rather than painted in pastels.

Bartók composed his suite of most vivid pieces for his own use as a concert pianist and here we witness an unusual array of moods, feelings and atmospheric sounds. Particularly impressive are the last two segments: Night Music and The Chase (sometimes also referred to as The Hunt). In the Night Music Bartók evokes nocturnal sounds: the humming and chirping of insects, the croaking of night creatures, echoes of some distant song, blurred clusters and then the stillness of the night. Its most horrifying part is the galloping Chase where both the hunters’ dogs and their prey running in panic try to keep the break-neck pace. It was almost miraculous to witness this level of pianistic ability from an artist whose powers simply fail to abandon him.

For an encore Mr. Lowenthal offered one of his specialties: a Verlain poem Clair de lune recited in perfect French followed without a break – as a several other works in this program were – by Debussy’s own famous tone-painting Clair de lune.

Roman Markowicz



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