An Auspicious Debut by a Rubinstein Competition Winner
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 23 in F minor “Appassionata”, opus 57
Karol Szymanowski: Two Mazurkas, opus 50 No. 3 & No. 4 – Variations in B-flat minor, opus 3
Fryderyk Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, opus 35
Szymon Nehring (piano)
S. Nehring (© Bruno Fidrych)
The young Polish pianist Szymon Nehring is the recent winner of the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, where in May of 2017 he took/was awarded First Prize and a Gold Medal. His New York recital debut in Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall was sponsored by the American Friends of the Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society. Perhaps it was the sponsors’ idea to present a recital in the somewhat unusual format of a continuous performance lasting a little over an hour. Regardless of the recital’s brevity, Mr. Nehring offered a demanding program featuring two staples of the piano repertory (sonatas by Beethoven and Chopin) and a rarity – at least on American stages – in the form of works by Karol Szymanowski, who at one time was championed by the man after whom the Tel Aviv competition is named.
This past summer, I was fortunate enough to hear Mr. Nehring performing in his native Poland, where in a short few years he has become a darling not only of Polish audiences and concert presenters but also record companies. There, in addition to recitals offered on a traditional modern concert grand and on a historical piano when a similar repertory was offered on both instruments, he also played both Chopin Piano Concertos on a 1849 Erard piano: I was quite impressed by the ease with which he navigated this hard to control historical instrument.
For those who have never heard or seen him, he has a very unassuming manner and plays that way too. His tall frame and bushy hair remind me a little of the young Van Cliburn, and the ease of his piano playing only reinforces that similarity in my mind. It is a particular manner of playing where the sheer pianistic difficulties seem not to exist and any problems are dealt with in an almost matter-of-fact style, with seemingly no effort. Generally, Mr. Nehring’s technical command is astonishing which we witnessed almost from the first notes of his recital.
He opened his program with one of Beethoven’s best known works, the Appassionata and I was very pleasantly surprised that he has not taken the route that so many young – and not so young – pianists travel. As I remarked in an earlier review, too many pianists disregard the fact that the composer specifies only one tempo per movement. It always pleases me when I hear musicians who try to convey the message of music within those bounds without fluctuating the pulse or tempo, speeding up when there is a forte indication, slowing down when there are softer dynamics, or even worse, when the composer slows down the note values for you. Mr. Nehring skillfully avoided those nasty pitfalls, bringing to the music a much needed element of nobility and grandeur. Yes, for those listeners accustomed to an excessive use of agogic in that work, the version we heard might not have sounded exciting enough. I was very little perturbed by it. It was a very thoughtful, well balanced reading with quite a bit of attention paid to detail and pedal markings. I was equally impressed by the lovingly played second movement Andante con moto, where I found an intensity in the buildup of variations. In the last variation the fast notes were, for once, played as melody, not merely as figurations. In the finale the rapid sixteenth notes were kept well in control and because of this judicious control, when the concluding Presto arrived, there was still room for a faster tempo. Even though this work has many moments when the dynamic extremes can cause the piano to sound shrill, Nehring was able to get a rather robust sound without harshness and he almost never forced the sound. One may add that alas the house piano lacked the alluring tonal qualities that would have helped the artist.
Next in the program we heard a sampling of Karol Szymanowski compositions; I thought it was a very appropriate gesture of our young pianist to include those works in his recital, as both were dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein, who more than anyone else in those days championed Szymanowski’s music.
Mr. Nehring offered us two Mazurkas and the virtuoso romantic Variations in B-flat minor. In the Mazurkas, Nehring’s subtlety and sensitivity captured that special climate of music inspired by the folklore of Polish high-landers and the beauty of the Tatra Mountains. The opening of the first mazurka was especially haunting as if bringing to our ears echoes of faraway pastures. The Variations are the very early and pianistically demanding work of a student composer. There we have not only an ample dosage of virtuosity but also a mélange of prevailing styles. There is a bit of Viennese elegance, Regerian density, Scriabinesque harmonies, and Brahmsian complexity akin to the Fugue from the Handel Variations, all of it far from what we later associated with Karol Szymanowski compositions. I found Mr. Nehring’s interpretation nuanced, well controlled, thoughtful and pianistically stunning. Surprisingly this work hasn’t the kind of glitter that promotes “showing off”. Instead it enables the pianist to efficiently dispatch all the difficulties in the score without much evident effort. After hearing Nehring’s performance, I picture him as potentially a superb exponent of large sets of variations by Brahms or Reger.
Then came Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat minor, primarily known for its Funeral March. Mr. Nehring, in Poland at least, came to prominence at the International Chopin Competition in 2015, where he was the only Polish pianist in the finals. It was therefore logical for him to include Chopin in his recital. As this was my third hearing of this interpretation – the first two being at the already mentioned music festivals in Poland last summer – I sort of knew what to expect. We the reviewers or worse yet, the critics, sometime have pet peeves regarding performances of some works. With this Sonata, regardless of how loaded it is with mood changes I always hope for the same kind of unity of musical pulse that so impressed me in Mr. Nehring’s Appassionata. Obviously our pianist perceives this score with a sense of dramatic tempo shifts, especially in the first two movements. It is of course an open question whether or not Chopin’s indication “sostenuto” (holding the tempo back) before the second theme in the first movement– not a new tempo marking! – and already slower note values means a dramatic tempo change or just a slight adjustment of a pulse. What worked well were the rhetorical pauses that punctuate the motivic expansion in the development section of the movement. Here we witnessed perhaps the most dramatic, theatrical moments not only in the sonata which in my opinion is about the most forward-looking of all Chopin works. I was less convinced by the tempo surges later on; so few musicians seem to realize that to build tension, pressure, or a sense of menace, it is more effective to hold the tempo back rather then surge ahead. Well, I didn’t say ONLY the young musicians. In recent years, the performers of this work are confronted with a problematic decision regarding the repeat of the first four measures, marked Grave, that open the Sonata. The opinions, even among well-known interpreters, are divided; some do, some vehemently oppose that idea. Mr. Nehring obviously subscribed to neither and this time opted not to repeat the exposition section at all.
The Scherzo was faultlessly executed and dispatched impressively without much effort, and there in the middle section as in the cantilena fragment of the first movement, one could desire a bit more true singing tone. I am sure that that will come to Mr. Nehring with time.
There was a serenity and nobility in the “Funeral March”, where our pianist nicely sustained the melody in the middle part and created lovely ambiance. One could hardly imagine a better controlled Finale Presto, the most enigmatic, visionary and fascinating four pages of pianissimo, played in unison octaves, in Chopin’s whole output. This was the first of the three performances of the Chopin Sonata in B-flat minor I was going to hear on three consecutive evenings at Carnegie Hall. In my next review I will share my findings.
For the encores Mr. Nehring turned his attention to the two demanding Etudes-Tableaux from Opus 39 by Sergei Rachmaninov (No. 3 in F-sharp minor and No. 9 in D major). Here once again we were confronted with unforced virtuosity and panache.
The Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition has produced such winners as Emanuel Ax, Gerhard Oppitz, Jeffrey Kahane, Igor Levitt, Roman Rabinovich and Daniil Trifonov, who only two days later performed at Carnegie Hall as part of his seven-concert series called “Perspectives”. All of the Rubinstein competition winners were excellent pianists who later developed into the leading musicians among their colleagues. I sincerely hope that Mr. Nehring soon joins this distinguished pantheon. Based on this recital, we have every right to believe that before long this hope shall be realized.