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The Piano as Projectile

New York
Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center
05/14/2024 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Opus 109
Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Partita No. 2, BWV 1004: Chaconne (Arranged by Ferruccio Busoni)
Isaac Albéniz: Iberia: Book I
Igor Stravinsky: Three Movements from “The Firebird” (Arranged by Guido Agosti)

Clayton Stephenson (Pianist)

C. Stephenson (© Courtesy of the Artist)

I want the Arabic Granada, that which is art, which is all that seems to me beauty and emotion.
Isaac Albéniz on Beauty

Never has music achieved such diversified, such colourful impressions: one’s eyes close, as though dazzled by beholding such a wealth of imagery.
Claude Debussy, on Iberia

Was it accident? Or celestial coincidence? Twenty minutes after hearing Clayton Stephenson for the first time, at Merkin Concert Hall, wondering when I could hear this ebullient, young artist again, a note from Caramoor Festival informed me that this August 3, Mr. Stephenson would be giving another recital.

And I will be there.

I really didn’t know what to expect for an afternoon recital from a pianist in his mid‑20’s who was new to me. Add to that, four familiar works demanding maturity, understanding, and ten fabulous fingers to make them go. Whatever the maturity factor (Mr. Stephenson hardly plumbed the philosophical depths of Beethoven’s late Sonata), the New Yorker had the digits and good sense to make the Steinway tremble.

Admittedly, his truncation of the opening Opus 109 was disappointing for one reason. Mr. Stephenson truncated that first movement by ignoring the repeats. And that, for one of Beethoven’s most elegiac movements was unforgivable. The middle movement whirled out so quick that one hardly could grasp it.

But of course that final section was the lodestone. Mr. Stephenson’s touch was sensitive enough, but he was aiming for contrasts more than continuity. His staccatos bounced up from the keys, his more lyrical sections had the rhapsody of extra pedaling.

The result was a personal approach, and he had the chops to bring it off.

Not to abandon the grandeur, the pianist went immediately to Busoni’s grandest transcription, the D Minor Chaconne. Again we were treated to faultless virtuosity, color which Bach would never have conceived, and a tribute to the Baroque lifted up a few centuries.

The greatest challenge, I felt, was Albéniz’ Iberia. On a personal note, I had heard Alicia de Larrocha perform all three books (in Bangkok), and had thought of her incomparable playing when in Andalucia last month.

Nobody, nobody could cone near Ms. de Larrocha’s graceful arcs her colors, Clayton Stephenson came as near as a mortal can do, He emphasized the rhythms, the tonal beauty, and almost had that unique phraseological grace. This was not a warm performance, but it enveloped Iberian sharpness, Andalucian Arab‑Spanish poignancy.

The last work was new to me. Not Firebird, of course. Not Stravinsky’s own brilliant transcription of the Suite. But this astounding difficult rendition of the last three movements by Guido Agosti, And here Mr. Stephenson was in his element.

Starting with the swarming brutal “Infernal Dance”–opening with a seven‑octave crash–continuing without a break to the lullaby, and onto the finale, this is more than a challenge: it is a non‑stop projectile between the murderous and the Herculean. Though never lumbering, never heavy, never Germanic. This, after all, was ballet, and Mr. Stephenson danced through the entire work.

All handled with aplomb, a smile, a physical confidence and a joy.

So much joy that his arrangement of Summertime as an encore was finger-tapping, clever and a disappointment.

Never mind. Clayton Stephenson has rare fluency and facility. When he performs at Caramoor, us New Yorkers can again witness his singular wonders.

Harry Rolnick



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