Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Kate Boyd piano recital at Butler University: Embracing the long reach of Romanticism

Kate Boyd, associate professor of piano, Butler University
Anticipation of a Butler University professor's solo piano recital undoubtedly built all the more after illness forced postponement of her scheduled December performance to Tuesday night.

The 140-seat Eidson-Duckworth Recital Hall was filled by the time Kate Boyd opened her program with Schubert's Sonata in A major, D. 664, op. 120 (the "little" or "lesser" A major, as it's sometimes known). In its new position, the recital gave immediate stature to the post-holiday resumption of the city's classical-music season.

Boyd's fitness for an expressively challenging program was nearly immaculate. She imaginatively shaped both parts of the recital: the Schubert sonata anticipating Alban Berg's in the first half; a Chopin group of A-flat major pieces foreshadowing Sergei Prokofiev's wartime masterpiece, Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, after intermission.

The slight awkwardness of Boyd's oral program notes somehow added to the charm of her interpretations. To prepare listeners for the atmosphere of foreboding in Berg's op. 1, for instance, she reminded her audience that "Freud was going on" in the Vienna of the composer's early maturity, when the sonata was composed. Indeed the good doctor was!

Boyd kept the lines clear against the threat of harmonic entanglement in a score that veers conclusively toward tonality. The style peers forward to new ground eventually surveyed systematically by Berg's teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.

In the borderlands the Berg sonata wanders, the frequent looks backward to  old Vienna never seemed cursory in this performance. The shadows largely sublimated in the adventurous score are those of St. Stephen's Cathedral and the imperial city's byways, not those of skyscrapers and angular machinery yet to come. Modernism was held at arm's length here, no more so than in the breathtaking final measures, where Boyd managed a creditable diminuendo from pianissimo to triple piano.

The Schubert sonata had displayed her exquisite dynamic control and flair for melody. Everything was put into proper relationship, the pedaling leaning toward the "dry" side in a way that complemented the hall's resonant acoustics. The phrasing was buoyant and spoke to the songfulness everywhere evident in Schubert's instrumental music. A few smudged phrases in the finale did little to mar the impression.

Her Chopin group — key-signature cousins in different short forms — displayed internal rapport. A mesmerizing Impromptu, op. 29, was followed by the snap and elan of the Mazurka, op. 59, no. 2. Its rhythmic dash gave way to a display of keenly voiced chords in the Prelude, op. 28, no. 17, setting up as a finale the Grande Valse Brillante (op. 34, no. 1). Again, we were treated to Boyd's gift for sustaining a melody, in addition to her well-honed, unforced feeling for the tempo rubato so essential to this music. She held some of the title's brilliance in reserve, too, distributing it judiciously.

"Another piece in A-flat" constituted Boyd's announcement of her encore, the Chopin Etude (op. 25, no. 1) focused on a steady rippling effect in both hands topped by the right's simple melody, which floated effortlessly in the recitalist's performance.

The Chopin bouquet of expressive and technical skills was arranged to totally different effect in the Prokofiev sonata, whose bravura finale made it a splendid program-ender. It's not hard to come across performances that treat this "Precipitato" movement as nothing but precipitous, even brutal. Boyd maintained her poise throughout.

It was obvious she treasures the work's lyricism — its episodes of the nostalgia she spoke of from the stage — as much as its plangent bells, brisk marches and assertive fanfares, its pianistic ordnance and rat-a-tat-tats. The contrasting episodes in the restless opening movement were so heart-stoppingly indulged in that its momentum was decisively checked —a daring interpretive decision that proved quite persuasive, like the entire recital itself.