Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Programming flair, judicious interpretations: Richard Ratliff gives a 35th-anniversary piano recital at the University of Indianapolis

Showing his typical knack for programming — as balanced, gently animated, and attractive as an Alexander Calder mobile — Richard Ratliff played a solo piano recital Monday night in observance of his 35 years on the faculty of the University of Indianapolis.

The professor of piano and artistic initiatives offered oral program notes in a couple of places to supplement his characteristically detailed descriptions in the printed program. No doubt everyone left Ruth Lilly Performance Hall knowing more about what had been so conscientiously prepared for them to enjoy.

Richard Ratliff
And enjoyment was the subtly extended invitation Ratliff offered in a three-part recital. The first of Beethoven's late series of piano sonatas, No. 28 in A major, op. 101,  provided a crest in the middle, with shorter works — many of them "character pieces," flanking it.

Over the years, an autumnal quality has come into Ratliff's playing with increasing prominence. Mellowness that should not be mistaken for lassitude suffused Monday's recital. To take up the Beethoven first, even the second-movement march that foreshadows the highly charged complexity of the finale had its points of rest and recharging emphasized.  The movements on either side of it, compact and engaging, were played with tenderness and a slightly evasive feeling.

The weight of this sonata is in the tightly wound finale. Its momentum in this performance was unfortunately checked by a memory slip. Recovery from it seemed assured as the well-planned account approached its end. The constituent lines that pile upon one another were kept clear and sonorous.

For contrapuntal heft and an even more assertive serious tone, there was Shostakovich's Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in D minor to conclude the recital. This work, with its tense air of anticipation wrapped in gloom, gathers up all its strength in the fugue. It's a menacing construction, somewhat at expressive cross purposes near the end, as Ratliff pointed out in remarks from the stage beforehand. That made it an extra exciting conclusion to the evening.

The recital opened with an evocative early piece by Zoltan Kodaly, getting from Ratliff a proper amount of pedal to give a nice haze to Debussyan harmonies as the slight melodic material is treated with elegiac frugality. In two sonatas by Scarlatti, I missed somewhat the militaristic character of the E major, whose fanfare figures seemed nearly folded into the performance's understatement. Both explored the inner dimensions of this composer's forthright manner.

Melody was foremost in three of Grieg's Lyric Pieces.  "Homesickness" rang out plaintively, with its constrained theme; "Sylph" was delightfully elusive, and "Evening in the Mountains" had its melancholy folk character underlined. This mood of stoic isolation was picked up late in the program in the nostalgia of Joseph Schwantner's "Veiled Autumn," the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer's only piece for piano solo, the notes tell us. Ratliff brought it off with the hints of wind chimes and harp found elsewhere in Schwantner's music.

UIndy's John Berners was represented by an excerpt of his "Zoot Suite," a ragtime-inflected charmer called "Rag Nocturne." It seemed to draw on the more reflective side of this noble American idiom, evoking such pieces as Scott Joplin's "The Chrysanthemum." In miniature, it summed up much of the appeal of an appealingly elevated recital, which wore its cause of celebration with elegance.