Monday, February 27, 2017

APA's Premiere Series concludes Sunday with another remarkable finalist

Alex Beyer put a personal stamp on a varied program Sunday afternoon.
It's expected that the American Pianists Awards in classical music will present pianists fully capable from a technical standpoint. And it's even the norm that appropriate interpretive ideas will be applied to the repertoire, even if they amount to no more than conventional wisdom.

But it always seems a gift when yet another finalist comes along with a real personality to express in the Premiere Series recital/concerto format. Personality is always a treacherous quality to assess in an art form so dependent on tradition. It can be summed up as the ability to project an individualized approach to the music that brings its essence forward without distortion, misreading or sensationalism.

That's what Alex Beyer rewarded a sizable audience with in the Indiana History Center's Basile auditorium Sunday afternoon. Amply recognized internationally already, the 22-year-old Beyer exhibited an incisive but not brittle attack, flexibility of tempo without giving the impression of waywardness, and an immense, cannily applied dynamic range.

This was evident from the start in the substantial Prelude movement of Bach's English Suite No. 6 in D minor. Beyer made no bones about offering a thoroughly "pianized" interpretation of the most illustrious Baroque composer — a man who may have had slight acquaintance with early pianos but wrote for the instrument's predecessors. Beyer eschewed simple contrast of dynamic levels from one phrase to the next in favor of dynamic variety that was amply multifaceted according to the rhetorical sweep of the piece. There were long crescendos and diminuendos that made sense and were steadily subject to the pianist's control and expressive purpose.

Opening a Rachmaninoff section in the same key was a daring indication that Beyer, despite his piano-specific concept of Bach, knows the difference between the 18th-century German and the 20th-century Russian. In three Etudes-tableaux from op. 33, Beyer submitted fully to the propulsiveness and wide palette characteristic of Rachmaninoff. The clarity and dash of his playing, already on display in Bach, was given free rein here: the dancelike yet somewhat martial No. 4 (Moderato in D minor), the whirlwind No. 5 (Presto in E-flat minor), and the comprehensive No. 6 (Allegro con fuoco in E-flat major), which ebbed and flowed with tidal certitude reminiscent of Beyer's way with Bach.

The Gordian knot of the program's recital portion was Schumann's Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, op. 11.  Certainly difficult to play and difficult to interpret, the rather sprawling four-movement work attained genuine cogency for me in Beyer's performance.

Schumann famously yoked his divided nature (when he was mentally healthy) to an interior partnership between personalities he named Eusebius and Florestan. Eusebius was the reflective, calm self; Florestan, his restless, exploratory character. Beyer's F-sharp minor sonata took the tack, especially in the first movement, of putting Eusebius definitively responsive to the urging of Florestan. I didn't feel the pianist was impatient with Eusebius' inwardness: the second movement, titled Aria, gave him a respectful outing.

So it was really a balanced interpretation, but definitely one responsive to Florestan's urgency, as if this side of Schumann were continually muttering to the other: "Get on with it, will you?" As a result, the Scherzo sounded fleet, carefree, a little "Eusebian," yet gladly impelled by the dominant restless partner. This movement has an odd episode that seems to make fun of an Italian opera recitative, complete with chordal punctuation: what's that doing in a piano sonata? Beyer handled that brief excursion as a caprice, which is a better way to deal with Schumann puzzles than straying into mysticism. His was an admirably clear-eyed interpretation, without being in any sense blasé.

After intermission, the usual curtain-raiser for the finalist's concerto performance came off delightfully. Matthew Kraemer conducted the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in Rossini's Overture to La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder). Sunday's account had plenty of zest and some perky oboe solos by ICO principal Leonid Sirotkin.

When Beyer returned to the stage for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, he showed his mastery in full partnership with Kraemer and the ICO. The dynamic and tempo variety owed more to insight than willfulness. The rapport with the orchestra was well-prepared: The way the orchestra led into the first-movement cadenza had genuine suspense, setting the stage for Beyer's turn in the unaccompanied spotlight superbly.

Beyer made the Adagio moto sound like one of Beethoven's most inspired slow movements; the more-than-usual amount of pedal in the final phrases created a magical effect. The wickedly fast tempo taken in the Rondo finale seemed to suit this outstanding finalist's temperament, without a hint of resembling the colloquial bat out of hell — or, since it sounds better in P.D.Q. Bach's Italian — come un pipistrello dall' inferno.