Monday, June 7, 2021

Dominic Cheli brings extra flamboyance to his solo recital in APA's competition finalist series

Dominic Cheli put together a captivating recital.

 Sunday afternoon in the American Pianists Association's Classical Awards recital series, a cleverly designed program helped Dominic Cheli showcase his enormous facility and power without overemphasizing them.

Daring to put other modern pieces alongside the competition piece, Laura Kaminsky's "Alluvion," was one striking decision. In his evidently large-scale investment in music by Leslie Adams and Carl Vine, Cheli displayed his gift for finding the distinctiveness of lesser-known works. 

Along the way he placed the first of Alexander Scriabin's "Two Poems," providing an enchanting contrast to the galvanic splendor of Vine's Sonata No. 1. About 16 minutes long in this performance, the one-movement sonata moved from a tolling-bells episode into a whirlwind toccata, folded in a subdued respite, then moved back into complex virtuosity that left its mark on an ensuing slow melody near the end. No register of the instrument was left unexploited, and the variegated textures were always solidly balanced.

The piece made an effective successor to Adams' songful "Etude No. 2," which in itself occupied far different terrain from "Alluvion." Cheli's approach to Kaminsky's composition brought out its rhapsodic qualities, aided by more pedal resonance than I was aware of the first time I heard it.

The recital opened at the basis of piano repertoire today: J.S. Bach, whose keyboard music the world has become quite used to hearing on the modern piano. The hit mid-20th-century interpretations of Glenn Gould, rapid and spiky, leading to more restrained ways of finding Bach idiomatic, exemplified by Andras Schiff and others, have encouraged an enthusiastic "who needs harpsichords?" attitude toward this repertoire. 

Thus, there's room for such interpretations as Cheli offered of the French Suite No. 5 in G, which he played in a nuanced, slightly affected manner that nonetheless shed appropriate light on the music. The suite's movements were treated somewhat like "character pieces," which is not out of line considering the various dance forms from which they are derived. There were slight hesitations in the cadences, some question-and-answer coloring of passages akin to one another, and, in the Sarabande, even Chopinesque rubato. I found all of this tasteful and well-considered, though not totally appealing. Cheli's straightforward playing of the concluding Gigue was a reassuring drawing together of his expansive approach to the suite as a whole.

Nothing was more satisfying than a full display of the extraordinary virtuosity and lyrical heft already foreshadowed by the other pieces when Cheli concluded the recital with Liszt's "Reminiscences de Don Juan." It's one of many notable operatic paraphrases that the Hungarian virtuoso concocted not only to show himself off, but also to familiarize European audiences with music they may have heard about but perhaps had never heard.

 Mozart's "Don Giovanni" notably is an opera in which the atmosphere around the title character is more important than anything having to do with his dramatic vocalism. Liszt naturally was attracted to the demonic energy of the murdered Commendatore's reappearance as a stone statue to set up the notorious rake's comeuppance. Cheli's left-hand strength got ample room to project the foreboding of the opera's denouement. How could a composer so fascinated with sin as Liszt resist putting such music at the beginning? Well, of course he couldn't.

Immediately, the pianist's keen sense of drama and the suspenseful way Liszt handles transitions shone from episode to episode. The seductiveness of "La ci darem la mano" and the nonchalant bravura of "Fin ch'han del vino" followed in due course, both tunes fervently elaborated. Cheli's figuration had the right spine-tingling effect; his octaves were torrential yet clearly articulated near the end. He lent an ominous calm to the final measures, in which Liszt recalls the Commendatore's promise to attend the Don's falsely triumphant feast. Cheli's performance not only stood on its own as a well-executed spectacle, but also confirmed the intelligent design of his program.

The performance can be visited again at 8 p.m. Tuesday in a WFYI-FM broadcast.

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