An Impressive New York Debut
Weill Recital Hall
Johann Sebastian Bach: English Suite No.2 in A minor, BWV 807
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.30 in E Major, op.109
Fryderyk Chopin: Ballade No.1 in G minor, op.23 – Etude in E minor, op.25 No.5 – Nocturne in B Major, op.62 No.1 – Three Mazurkas, op.56 – Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor, op.31
Avery Gagliano (piano)
A. Gagliano (© Roman Markowicz)
Avery Gagliano, a 20 year old student at the famed Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, came to Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall as a winner of the 2020 Tenth National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami. She was offered not only the princely $100,000 prize, but also the Best Concerto Prize, and a recording contract with the Steinway and Sons label. Not bad for a 19 year old... She has already performed throughout the U.S., and participated in such notable summer venues as the Verbier Festival Academy and the Aspen and Ravinia Festivals.
I had the pleasure of hearing Ms.Gagliano barely six weeks earlier in Warsaw, where she participated in the 18th International Chopin Competition. She advanced all the way to the semi-finals in a very strong and very crowded field of contestants. She was one of the audience favorites, and her performances there were memorable for impeccable pianism, intelligence, musicality and lack of any superficiality. She was one of those pianists whose interpretations seem natural and devoid of showiness and ostentation. One would expect that coming back from the Chopin Competition, Ms. Gagliano would take the easy way out and present that same competition repertory in her New York debut. She was more ambitious than that. In addition to a hefty portion of Chopin works, Ms.Gagliano also offered Bach and a demanding late Beethoven sonata.
As in the case of SaeYoon Chon, a Korean pianist I reviewed two weeks earlier, it was “requested” that she perform her program without a break. That would, in the minds of the powers-that-be at the Carnegie Hall administrative offices, certainly prevent the already double or triple vaccinated audience, wearing the face-diapers, from being infected with the virus. We should, thus, be grateful to our soloist that she saved our lives by not taking the intermission. Hmm... Yet, unlike her Korean colleague, she chose not to wear the dreaded face mask during her performance. What connects these two pianists is the fact that they are both students of Robert McDonald, who is cultivating in his Juilliard School and Curtis Institute studios the most talented and prodigiously gifted pianists.
Luckily she had a brief little moment of relaxation between the Beethoven and Chopin, because at that point the Executive Director of the Chopin Foundation, Ms. Barbara E. Muse, presented a talk which highlighted the activities of that valued and highly regarded institution. The Florida based Chopin Foundation of the United States is the largest such institution in our country, and in addition to sponsoring the National Chopin Competition every four years, is heavily involved in career development and education It turns out that Avery Gagliano had come under their wings as a 15 year old scholarship recipient.
The opening Prelude of the Bach Suite, conceived in the form of concerto grosso, was taken at quite a fast clip and received a bubbly, vivacious performance. Because of Ms. Gagliano flawless technique and exceptional evenness of touch, the speed was never in question and melodic lines were always nicely delineated. It is evident that Ms. Gagliano doesn’t subscribe to the idea that Bach should be played without the sustaining pedal, and/or should whenever possible imitate the sound of the harpsichord. Neither does she evade other traditional pianistic devices, such as applying crescendo nor diminuendo, which is fine with me. Even if her approach to Bach is a bit conventional, it is in line with the many other pianists who are nowadays regarded as beloved Bach interpreters. If I were to voice two minor points of criticism, it would concern what sounded like the pianist’s reliance on the left pedal to create dynamic differences, and the matter of repeats. I would suggest a tad more variety in the ornamentation would help, even though some may argue that less is better.
In the Sarabande, with written out variants, Bach almost offers his performer an invaluable lesson on ornamentation thus indicating what he would expect to be done to the repeats. The fast movements (curiously, the names were not included in the program) such as Courante, Bourrée, with a playful middle part in A Major, and Gigue were always sprightly, vigorous, and exciting. It was also the cleanest Bach playing I’ve heard in a long time. So apart from my minor reservations, it was a very attractive performance; joyful, bouncy, and full of color, yet always with sufficient breathing space so the music never felt rushed.
It takes courage for any very young pianist to offer in his/her debut recital a late Beethoven sonata. So here on the one hand, we had a perfectly prepared version, faithful to the score and worth our appreciation, even though in our minds we all have our own preferred interpretations of those late works. In that sonata, I would prefer a little deeper, rounder, though not necessary louder, sound and more distinct phrasing. In the last movement, Andante molto cantabile, I admired her technical excellence, her evenness of touch, the perfection in negotiating the strictly virtuoso variations and the simplicity in shaping the twice returning theme. Her evenness of touch and technical excellence was evidenced again in the strictly virtuoso 3rd and 5th variations, in the nicely highlighted harmonic changes, the impressive double notes in the 5th and the tenderness displayed in the 4th variation. The third movement alone demonstrated a fine musical mind and left no doubts that with time Ms. Gagliano will internalize her already good ideas about the work.
The Chopin part of the recital was no surprise because I had a chance to hear all the selections at the competition in Warsaw. I felt that this time our pianists were less stressed, for even in an event as demanding as the New York debut, it pales in comparison with the pressure of the Chopin Competition In Warsaw. So at Weill Hall we heard performances that were beautifully conveyed, elegant, well proportioned and invariably very musical. One can call Gagliano’s approach to Chopin’s music cultural, sane, and rarely calling attention to itself. One should keep in mind that some of the most wonderful Chopin performers, such as Horszowski in the past and, say, M. J. Pires or E. Ax today, were/are also proponents of this approach: natural, unassuming, deeply musical and always in good taste. I was impressed with the unaffected narration and skillfully created suspense in the G minor Ballade, the subtle, delicate, expressive treatment of the late Nocturne in B Major, and her controlled virtuosity and bravura in the B flat minor Scherzo.
Arguably the most difficult part of the Chopin set were the three Mazurkas Op.56, of which the final in C minor is the hardest to convey. It is most intricate, most poignant, and exemplifies as few other works do, that feeling of sadness, resignation and a little hope that is particular to Chopin. It is not without a reason that great Vladimir Horowitz, himself one of the most formidable interpreters of that hardest of Chopin’s musical forms, claimed that in one of those “poems for piano” he finds a more powerful message, than in many of the larger symphonic works. Listening to the Mazurka in C Minor, one feels that those words of Mr. Horowitz are only a small exaggeration on his part, for these miniatures carry an enormous emotional charge. Is it even fair to expect a very young person, full of life and joy, to plumb the depths of such human heartbreak? And yet, Ms. Gagliano for the most part was a very successful interpreter of these three “poems”, getting the rhythmic complexity right, creating a proper mood and dance-like character for the first two, and communicating that “hard to put across” sense of loss permeating from the last piece of the set.
Whereas during the Chopin Competition in Warsaw I felt that her piano sound was nice if small scale, which might have even cost her participation in the finals, here at Weill Hall the same sound production worked just fine and became an asset. Even in the loudest passages she was never harsh, and her tone showed refinement. It remains to be seen if the same approach will work on the larger scale piano repertory, works which demand more power.
As in Warsaw, she once again won the hearts of her enthusiastic audience whom she rewarded with three encores: two Chopin etudes (in F Minor, Op.25 No.2, and in C Minor, Op.10 No.12), and a farewell bon-bon, the 16-measure-long Prelude in A Major, op.28 No.7.