Thursday, June 15, 2017

CD review: A revelatory Schumann pianist, winner of a major Canadian competition

Luca Buratto: An affinity for Schumann.
You expect musicians heavily involved with a particular composer to express their closeness to what they're working on. When such expressions are linked to marketing, even in the low-key manner of a publicity release, the affinity can hardly be expressed too strongly. The bear hug seems entirely natural.

Still, when Luca Buratto, the most recent laureate of the Honens Piano Competition (2015), writes that "the music of Schumann has become almost an obsession with me — a kind of religion," some forgivable hyperbole might be suspected.

Yet the recording that accompanies these words of devotion bears him out. Hyperion has released his all-Schumann disc, and it's a stunner. The Italian-born and -trained pianist seems to be channeling the troubled avatar of 19th-century Rhineland romanticism.

The Honens prize is prestigious and well-heeled, established by a Canadian philanthropist, Edith Honens, in 1991 with a $5 million endowment and based in her hometown, Calgary, Alberta.  The city is a sophisticated metropolis on the prairie (population: 1.24 million) and well-situated to be the base of an international piano contest held every three years and open to pianists between the ages of 20 and 30.

The program here is a substantial challenge. The problematic Humoreske in B-flat major, op. 20, opens the CD.  The trail was blazed for me toward appreciating this lengthy, occasionally unfocused work by Drew Petersen's performance during the American Pianists Association Discovery Week in January. Petersen went on to win the APA Classical Fellowship and is well launched into his four-year tenure.

Humoreske is a mixture of Schumann excellences and eccentricities— there's a darting energy, sometimes suddenly turned inward, but often effervescent.  Granted, it's a little short on melody and cohesion. What is remarkable in Buratto's performance is how he manages to make variations in tempo and dynamics seem to emerge from within the music rather than be imposed upon it. This kind of shift comes upon the listener such that you wonder if it's a caprice of the performer; you look down at the page, and it turns out to be right there in the score.

That improvisational illusion is entirely proper to Schumann, it seems to me. "Organic" is a much-overused word in praising artistic achievements, but where structure and melodic riches don't seem to be of overwhelming importance, the ability to make a composition seem substantial and well-considered by bringing out how it grows and pulses from inside is much to be prized.

After a well-chosen palate freshener, the Blumenstück in D-flat major, op. 19, a more controlled masterpiece fills the latter half of the disc: Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6. This expansive piece, the product of great care by a composer expressing contrasting sides of his own personality, is quite well delineated here. Those aspects, represented as the flamboyant Florestan and the reflective Eusebius, are contrasted in successive movements and sometimes combined and played off each other in the same section. Buratto clearly admires and yields to the bipolarity of this music. He immediately catches and sustains the mood characteristic of each turn of the Schumannian kaleidoscope.

Buratto's whole-hearted investment in the adventure of Davidsbündlertänze is evident in every phrase. And his ability to make Humoreske sound better than it probably is must be applauded.  If this is an obsession, it has proved to be — unlike most obsessions — more of a blessing than a handicap.

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