Monday, January 14, 2019

A throwback to the romantic recital: Drew Petersen plays solo piano music with insight and panache

Long ago, the age of what Franz Liszt pioneered as the solo recital soon acquired a format to be shared by pianists,
Drew Petersen: Breadth of youthful mastery
violinists, and singers — the most desired musician categories the public was willing to  hear under an individual spotlight. The format stipulated progress starting from serious and "heavy" repertoire, shifting to "light" stuff after intermission (still demanding enough to sustain a link with the program's first half) and ending with a bravura showpiece. It long satisfied the connoisseurs as well as what might be called (without disparagement) more casual music-lovers.

Drew Petersen,  by temperament, repertoire choice, and technical aplomb, reminded me Sunday afternoon of that time-tested program structure, which dominated concert life long before I matured as a listener. Even in its heyday, there were exceptions: the revered pianist Artur Schnabel sustained the public's love despite his unwillingness to offer anything other than "music greater than it can be played," so lighter material was left to others. Decades later,  the violinist Eugene Fodor, on the other hand, raised critical eyebrows with a New York recital debut exclusively devoted to bonbons.

Petersen showed the strength of the middle way. And he further waved the banner for the conventional solo recital by his characteristic approach. His is a romanticism held in from excess by clarity of texture, well-defined rhythms, and judicious pedaling. The tone is warm, the phrasing conscientiously revealing of the music's emotional import.

Making a name for himself in his mid-20s, Petersen is the 2017 Christel DeHaan Fellow of the American Pianists Association, having won the top prize of the APA's Classical Awards that year. He has been heard several times in Indianapolis, and his performances hew to a high standard  across a wide range of music. His honors also include an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

His solo recital at the Palladium in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts confirmed the strong impression he's already made hereabouts. He opened with J.S. Bach's Partita No. 5 in G major. The constituent strands in the score stood out as needed, but the recitalist didn't make a fetish of transparency: The opening Preambulum reached a climax of bunched-up energy that never obscured a layout that's only superficially complicated. I also admired the lyrical strength of the Sarabande, and the way momentum captured the spirit of the concluding Gigue without sounding headlong.

Before the fuguelike finale of Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy in C major, which followed, came the recital's only slightly muddy outburst, but the waters cleared with the Allegro movement. Earlier, several of Petersen's gifts were fully evident: the even weighting of chords in the Adagio and his ability to shape the short decorative phrases in the Presto. His control was almost always superb: The cross-hands episode in the first movement featured a well-modulated lowering of volume.

Just as the first half gave indication of Petersen's mastery of weighty music, the second moved in the direction of lightening the mood. Liszt — as mentioned, the father of the solo recital — accumulated an oeuvre that spanned a range from profound to practically salon music. "The Fountains at the Villa d'Este" falls clearly into the latter category. It requires of the pianist an almost etude-like facility with splashes of keyboard color, which Petersen properly sprayed evenly as if under glinting sunlight, without throwing fistfuls of water in our faces.

The watery theme was extended with the boat-song model of the barcarolle represented at its best by Frederic Chopin's Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op. 60.  The main theme floated magically, with the left hand supplying the steady forward motion. The variety of figuration in the right hand, so nicely outlined by Petersen,  brought to mind Glenn Gould's dismissive comment about Chopin as "the genius of the right hand" — which the Polish composer certainly was, though scads of music-lovers will object to the implied belittlement.

Both Liszt and Chopin, as represented by those pieces, helped give special stature to a pair of works by Enrique Granados, a highly regarded Spanish composer whose career was cut short by a submarine attack on the ship that was bringing him back from the New World to his homeland in 1916. "Valses Poeticos," over the course of eight movements, spotlighted Petersen's marvelous tone and his sensitivity as a colorist and etcher of atmosphere. To conclude the printed program,  the picturesqueness was raised to the nth degree by a selection from Granados' evocative suite "Goyescas."

Capping the retrospective glories of this kind of recital, Petersen offered the brief, popular Chopin Prelude in A major, op. 28, no. 7, as an encore to a Palladium audience he seems to have both stunned and charmed.

[Photo: Dario Acosta]

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