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The songs of France, the songs of Rumania

New York
Frick Collection
03/25/2018 -  
Fryderyk Chopin: Mazurkas in F Minor op. 63 No. 2, in B flat Major op. 17 No. 1, in C sharp Minor op. 30 No. 4, in A Minor op. 68 No. 2 & in C sharp Minor op. 63 No. 3 – Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor op. 58
Georges Bizet: Chants du Rhin
Leonid Desyatnikov: from Twenty-four Preludes “Songs of Bukovina”

Lukas Geniusas (pianist)

L. Geniusas

It was hard to believe that Lukas Geniusas, a pianist that has been a prize winner at the major American (Bachauer) and European (Chopin, Tchaikovsky) international piano competitions, was making his New York debut with the recital at the Frick Collection. He did it in a unconventional manner by eschewing, at least in the second half of the recital, the well-known repertory and concentrating instead on works that, in American venues at least, one hears rarely if ever. A several years ago, right after he was awarded a second prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, I have heard him twice perform in Poland and at that time he has made a positive impression on me, especially in the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. This time however, perhaps because he didn’t have to play as a winner and didn’t need to play-to-impress, his performance turned out to be even more attractive and convincing.

There is some “tradition” in playing recitals, especially “debut recitals” that require from the performer to present at least one less-well-known work or an example of a contemporary music. Yeah, show your versatility. Mr. Geniusas devoted the whole second half of his intriguing program to those off the beaten track works and they were also most interesting. Not that there was anything wrong with his interpretations of Chopin, for he is after all a winner of the Second Prize at the famed Chopin Competition in Warsaw. It was a lovely idea to start the program from a set of Mazurkas, that are always so difficult to play in a convincing manner. Only one among the five was boisterous (in B flat Major), the others were more reflective and insightful and played quite beautifully. His version of the mighty Sonata in B minor was impressive in a way that it was thoughtful, mature and played with an understanding. There was nothing objectionable but at the same time there were not too many moments of a truly inspiring playing. There was some agogic fluctuation in the development section and a sense of caring for the music; there was not much in the department of inner voices or a particular attention given to the bass line. In the Scherzo, there was fleetness of fingers and a typical slowing-down of the middle section, which in my opinion seems a tad too stodgy. Largo fortunately moved at a nice clip and there at least the phrase didn’t sag as it often happens. Equally, from pianistic point of view, was the Finale and here our soloist adhered to Chopin’s tempo marking Presto non tanto: we felt that he didn’t wanted this movement to sound rushed and was able to build a nice culmination.

Still, I was much more charmed by the six miniatures that compose the Songs of Rhine by Georges Bizet. I am ashamed to admit that I did not know any other of his piano works save for the Variations chromatiques but I am so glad that Mr. Geniusas acquainted us with those songs without words. Bizet was after all a very accomplished pianist, able to read on the piano difficult orchestral scores and here his style of writing is very idiomatic. Each of them was preceded in the score by a little poem singing love for the river Rhine and each was dedicated to one of the fames French musicians, not necessary pianists.

Their character is very close to both Mendelssohn and Schumann, but other names came to mind, such as Field, Volkman, Moscheles, Henselt, Berwald or Hiller. Another words just as in Mendelssohn’s famous miniatures, we have here extremely melodious vocal lines, not terribly complicated. Geniusas displayed an impressive ability to carry the melody in a vocal style with a ringing, warm, sensuous sound. The first one “L’Aurore” could be really mistaken for Mendelssohn, second “Le Départ” has already some traces of a French melody, “Les Ręves” could again come from some Schumann cycle or be a transcription of one of his songs, “La Bohémienne” in the triple meter could have come from some ballet score, a combination of a waltz and Spanish-flavored number concluding with a charming melody in the left hand, “Les Confidences” had more Brahmsian colors and mood, the last “Le Retour” was another example of Mendelssohn song-without-words-on-steroids. All played with finesse, nice round sound, and elegance: a real charming six-piece suite!

I have not been exposed to the piano works of Leonid Desyatnikov, a Russian composer and teacher, whose Twenty-four Preludes are called Songs of Bukovina. Bukovina is a historic region in Central Europe, located on the northern slopes of the central Eastern Carpathians and adjoining plains; it is now divided between Romania and Ukraine. Thus it was no wonder that the musical material explored in those ten out of 24 Preludes, was rooted in the folk music we associate and connect to the Rumanian folklore. The whole set, judging just from the keys of the presented Preludes, is arranged in the same manner and key relation as the Chopin 24 Preludes op. 28, starting in C major and ending in D minor.

The selections started from a simple tune in C Major, almost totally diatonic, where we heard strains of some phrases from traditional piano repertory, next perhaps some of Liszt and later all morphed into an early Bartók style. It seems to me that several of those preludes were significantly influenced by this composer. Some were folk melodies/tunes such as Lutoslawski arranged for piano, some as Prelude No. 14 sounded like a dirge with Bartókian “night-music” accompaniment, some as in No. 16 like a Rumanian dumka with ostinato irregular accompaniment. The most complex was Prelude in F Minor No. 18 which brought to mind some crazy Nancarrow poly-metric composition with each hand going its own way: immensely difficult, yet performed with a great independence and control, especially for the left hand. There were some echoes of Bartók elsewhere, as in the last of the Preludes, No.23 in F Major, where sudden violent chords interrupted fast moving figurations.

Throughout Mr. Geniusas got a magnificent palette of colors from his piano, and displayed a superb control of dynamics and nuanced touch. There was but ne encore: alas the noise of the audience sitting down again in their chairs masked the announcement, but is sounded like Fauré. I didn’t hear all the words of explanation when Mr. Geniusas talked to his audience before performing Bizet and Desyatnikov. In moments like that, I wish we had at least for the rarely played repertory some printed program notes that one can read and absorb. Perhaps the next time?

Roman Markowicz



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