Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Pianist Jerome Lowenthal brings giant reputation to conclusion (temporary?) of Music at Shaarey Tefilla

Many years ago, the verbally prolific composer Ned Rorem — who's probably never said an unkind word about anyone who advocated for his music — heaped praise on Jerome Lowenthal for showing his generation  that "intellect and fire are the same thing."

Lowenthal had played and recorded Rorem's Third Piano Concerto, created on commission for the pianist, to great acclaim. Many other highlights have marked the career of the Philadelphia-born concert artist and teacher, who at 82 brought special distinction to the Music at Shaarey Tefilla series Monday night.

It was the star turn of M@ST's 2013-14 season at the Carmel synagogue. The years may have banked Lowenthal's fires somewhat, but the intellect shone through in a program of Jewish composers, from Felix Mendelssohn to George Rochberg.

Jerome Lowenthal played music by Jewish composers
Intellect in a performer is probably most valuable when the vehicle is not particularly cerebral. That was the case with the works in this recital. For instance, it takes brains to penetrate the superficial charm of clashing tonalities over Brazilian dance rhythms to bring out the naturalness inherent in Darius Milhaud's "Saudades do Brazil."  Playing the six pieces in the first volume, Lowenthal evoked the moody, smoky atmosphere of these miniatures while keeping the underlying pulse lively. His palette was broad, yet subtle, employing a variety of resonance.

The recital's second half was filled with the much wider-ranging Grand Fantasy on the Themes of the Opera "Les Huguenots" by Meyerbeer. Here, transmuted to all manner of keyboard assault by Franz Liszt,  was the sweep of dire events in grand-opera garb. The showpiece is loaded with the pathos of star-crossed lovers and massacred Protestants in a Paris to which they'd been lured in 1572 with the promise of peace from their Catholic brethren in Christ.

"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" comes into increasing focus, dominating the fantasy's peroration. The borrowing no doubt served Meyerbeer well; it certainly suited Liszt's need for grandeur to top off the tangle of material he extracted from the opera. Its exploitation of the iconic Protestant hymn led Robert Schumann to denounce Meyerbeer's work for its "commonness, distortion, unnaturalness, immorality and unmusicality." Only some of those attributes apply— and only somewhat — to Liszt's piece, which Lowenthal brought off magisterially.

Much more ancient religious history is evoked by Valentin Alkan's "Super flumina Babylonia" (By the Waters of Babylon), a musical paraphrase drawing upon the lamenting psalm of Jewish exile. Its two contrasting sections have an eccentric poignancy, capped by a bravura ending. My first acquaintance with this music in Lowenthal's hands made me eager to hear it again.

The French composer Alkan was so well known for his devotion to Judaic learning that the story arose of his death from falling bookshelves — an end so alarming to anyone who loves books that it gained macabre credibility. It took its place among such freakish composer fatalities as Jean Leclair's unsolved street murder, Ernest Chausson's bicycle accident and Wallingford Riegger's entanglement in dog leashes. But it's not true, according to the New Grove Dictionary.

The modern Jewish composer represented was George Rochberg, famed as a renegade serialist during the reign of modernist orthodoxy, but truly a man of substantial achievement both before and after he renounced 12-tone composition in the early '60s. On the latter side of that divide, his "Carnival Music" (1969) unfolds as a linked suite of sprightly, sentimental, bluesy and ragtime episodes — all of them colorfully brought off by Lowenthal, with judicious use of pedal helping to point up contrasts.

The recital's sole disappointment was Mendelssohn's "Variations serieuses." The interpretation seemed to view Mendelssohn through a Debussyan lens. The performance was inward-looking and impressionistic, some details fudged. Voicings were occasionally so peculiar that it seemed an attempt to recover from a memory slip, just before a variation in fugal texture prompted the waters to clear.

There was a nice balance of phrases in some variations, but the clarity and crystalline verve normally associated with Mendelssohn were missing. This may have been a Frenchified approach that has the stamp of tradition somewhere, but I was unacquainted with it. Let's hold open that possibility: Among Lowenthal's illustrious teachers was Alfred Cortot. There could be no better a distant source of inspiration for the thorough enchantment the recitalist brought to his encore, Debussy's "Clair de lune."