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When Young Brahms Set to Outshine Mature Beethoven

New York
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
10/17/2018 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor “The Tempest”, op. 31, No. 2
Henri Lazarof: Three Preludes
Michael Fine: Six Little Preludes
Fryderyk Chopin: Nocturne in B-flat minor, op. 9, No. 1 – Etudes, op. 25: No. 1 in A-flat Major – Etudes, op. 10: No. 12 in C Minor “Revolutionary”
Johannes Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, op. 1

Norman Krieger (piano)

N. Krieger (© Christian Steiner)

Way back when we were still at the Juilliard School, there were, among the young pianists, well-established hot-shots and then there were those whom we considered up-and-coming hot-shots; we all knew they were good, but had not yet established themselves fully. Norman Krieger, still in his teen-age years, belonged to that second group. With time he became a highly regarded virtuoso and sought-after piano teacher, who now holds a prestigious position at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. His New York appearances, rare as they are, somehow escaped my concert-radar and after decades of not hearing him, I finally had a chance to reacquaint myself with his art when he came to Weill Recital Hall invited by Key Pianists, an organization that specializes in presenting to New York audiences deserving artists who otherwise might not be heard.

For his program, Mr. Krieger, who nowadays sports a somewhat professorial look, chose two classical sonatas, some Chopin and a selection of miniatures by two American composers known to the pianist whose music is close to his heart, Henri Lazarof (1932-2013) and Michael Fine (b.1950). Whereas Lazarof was represented by three fragments of his larger set of Twelve Preludes, the Fine cycle of Six Little Preludes (2016) was presented complete. The choice of Chopin works was somewhat puzzling to me; just two of the Etudes from the Twelve, Op. 25, and one early Nocturne. In my mind, that little group, or part of it, would be a nice choice for encores, but we had to settle for just this small sampling of Chopin.

Lazarof, as Mr. Krieger stated, was a composer very much interested in and influenced by the visual arts and his preludes with their scintillating and colorful manner evoke that world of painting.

Fine, who spent decades outside the United States, imparts spirit of earlier times in his Six Little Preludes, which, as Krieger observed, we need now. Lazarof’s Preludes are coloristic and I found No. 5 and No. 3, a little toccata, especially effective, similar to Prokofiev but not nearly as demanding. Would I have surmised from these miniatures that Fine was allegedly influenced by or had a passion for the works of Kandinsky or Giacometti? Doubtful. Fine sounded sometimes trivial (as in No.1), tuneful (No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5), playful and aphoristic (No. 4) and a little coarse (No. 6). This is music that one would not necessarily associate with the year in which it was written – 2016 – and, in sum, pleasant if inconsequential.

In both sets, Krieger demonstrated a sensitive touch and a vast tonal palette: one could without hesitation call those performances close to definitive, which is a way of saying that to this listener, on first hearing, no improvements in interpretation seemed to be necessary.

By the time Mr. Krieger performed the works of Chopin, he seemed to be a little better acquainted with the piano and able to produce even more shades of dynamics and, as was the case with the rarely played Nocturne in B-flat minor—the first nocturne published—, he demonstrated some ardent playing with a true vocal quality. The interpretation of this nocturne, which was really lovely, made me think that our pianist should have devoted a little more space to this composer. That was followed by the two etudes, and whereas I was impressed with the calmly dispatched one in A-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 1, I was not much impressed by the next one, in C minor, allegedly Op. 25, No. 12. Only because it was a small typo: in reality Mr. Krieger offered another etude in C minor, the famous “Revolutionary” Op. 10, No. 12, and it was not only a tour de force but also very sanely and impressively played, without the undue hysteria sometimes accompanying performances of this etude.

Of the two sonatas that tied the program together, there was no doubt that the First Sonata by Brahms, performed in the second half, was more effective and played in an even more masterly fashion than the one by Beethoven, which opened the recital. One could fault neither the interpretation nor the performance of this sonata, known also in English-speaking countries as “The Tempest” (scores sell better when accompanied by a title...), which received an excellent rendition with a lot of attention given to details and strict observance to the composer’s textual indication. I might have preferred a slightly more declamatory style in the first movement Largo-Allegro and perhaps more attention given to the sound of each note in the phrase, but this could also be attributed to the process of getting accustomed to the keyboard. I liked the fact that the concluding Allegretto was not rushed—it is sometimes referred to as a perpetuum mobile—but I wish it had been a little more lilting in character and had exhibited better delineation of the separate notes. But it was perfectly played and had a scholarly feel to it.

Yet it was Brahms’s youthful sonata that stole the show. With this work, profoundly and quite openly influenced by the mighty Beethoven “Hammerklavier” Sonata Op. 106, Brahms had not yet entered the world of great composers; instead he burst onto that crowded stage, figuratively speaking pushing away anyone who happened to be in his way. From the beginning it clearly shows Brahms’s genius and command of the form and in its 30-minute long duration it has many formidable moments. It also has its pitfalls such as meandering moments in the first movement, a bit of naïveté in the songful Andante, based on an old German call-and-response song, and the last two movements are far too similar in character, both of which are very vigorous and ask the performer for demanding athletic jumps and stamina.

Needless to say, Mr. Krieger was excellently equipped to conquer all those hurdles but his performance was not all about athletics: there was a sense of architecture, nuanced tone and, when necessary, even some elegance and grace in the less rushed moments of the finale. The incessant gallop and demanding, challenging jumps we hear in the last two movements of the Sonata will be later equally ubiquitous in his Horn Trio. Those readers who have not heard Mr. Krieger’s Brahms First Sonata should become acquainted with his commercial recording of that work and even more so, with the mighty Second Piano Concerto which is prominently featured on his Decca CD.

As for the encores, we heard only one, which was also a prelude, this time the middle one of three that Gershwin wrote. A little blues, a little banjo, a little return to old times...

Roman Markowicz



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