Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Concert of Two Halves

Steven Vanhauwaert


Steven Vanhauwaert plays Liszt, Schumann, Busoni and more Liszt

You don’t normally expect a concert interval to last just over two days, but that was the effective outcome of the designedly complementary pair of recitals by pianist Steven Vanhauwaert that formed 2017’s kick-off to both the “First Fridays at First!” lunchtime series at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, and the Rolling Hills United Methodist Church’s early afternoon “Second Sundays at Two”.

Lucky we are indeed on the Palos Verdes Peninsula to regularly enjoy not only these but also the Chamber Music of the South Bay concerts (see previous review “A Trio of Piano Quintets at Rancho Palos Verdes”) and “The Interludes” on Saturday afternoons, mid-month, also at First Lutheran, Torrance (see following review). “First Fridays at First!” and “The Interludes” are promoted by Classical Crossroads, Inc., while “Second Sundays at Two” is sponsored by RHUMC itself.

Mr. Vanhauwaert’s concert “first half” was billed as “Liszt Favorites”, which proved to be six of the 12 Transcendental Etudes S139. His engaging and enthusiastic spoken introduction sketched the history of these, of which he played not the first numbered six but Nos. 1-3, 7, 9 and 11, a sequence that formed a coherent but varied whole. 

As he noted, the Transcendental Etudes are a second reworking of the Douze Etudes S136 written in 1826 when Liszt was only 15. The first reworking – not uninfluenced by the rapid evolution of piano design in the first decades of the 19th century – came in 1837 when he expanded these relatively simple pieces into the Douze Grandes Etudes S137, a set of phenomenal difficulty and almost three times the overall length of the original. Then a second and final revision 15 years further on produced the somewhat pianistically simplified but still formidably virtuosic final Transcendental Etudes, which of the three versions is by far the one most often played today. 

Though these still present multiple challenges to players, Mr. Vanhauwaert vaulted nimbly over them with technique to spare. He bounded out of the starting gate, delivering in a single sweep the brief impactful Preludio, which then segued virtually without a pause into No. 2 Molto vivace and then the much longer and more reflective No. 3 Paysage (“Landscape”). Indeed, by canny use of body language in addition to the subtle handling of pauses, he managed to make the whole sequence of six into a single and highly rewarding experience, unpunctuated by superfluous applause. 

After the sunset close of Paysage, the opening of No. 7 Eroica was a peremptory call to attention, soon slowing to a funeral march, while No. 9 Ricordanza proved to be a sentimental “Remembrance” indeed (a reminder also that Liszt has sometimes been criticized for tastelessness, notably by Clara Schumann). After this Mr. Vanhauwaert once more segued almost without a pause into the final Harmonies du Soir, at first serene and objective by contrast to the preceding movement, then with a growing grandeur that threatened to tip over into grandiosity but was saved from doing so by the conviction and aplomb with which the pianist handled its torrent of notes. I for one was won over – this was transcendental indeed, and the audience rewarded this recital “first half” with a standing ovation that for once was deserved. 


So… two days later, on to the “second half” in the larger and more acoustically responsive space of RHUMC. Mr. Vanhauwaert began with two of Schumann’s eight Novelletten Op. 21 – in fact, the first and last of them. As with Schubert’s Impromptus, Schumann’s overall title masks works of considerable length and variety, very much not the musical epigrams one might expect. However, for this listener (and not as with Schubert’s Impromptus) they seemed a bit over-extended for their basic material, and particularly in No. 8 I found my mind wandering and wondering about the next pieces. 

These were two of the four that comprise Busoni’s Indianisches Tagebuch. I had heard of this work but knew nothing about it, and in my ignorance assumed the “Indian” of the title to refer to the music of the Asian sub-continent. Not so! The beguiling melodies that Busoni transcribed as the basis for the two middle movements of the four – “Song of Victory” and “Bluebird Song” – were from, respectively, the North American Cheyenne and Pima people. Both were a delight, the first an impetuous, skittish piece over a driven six-note ground bass, the second much slower, with many transitory and sensuous bitonal clashes and a continual feel of something adjacent to the “Scottish snap”. 

I would happily have heard the remaining first and last movements of the Busoni as well, but space was needed for the conclusion to the recital, the towering Dante Sonata or, to give its full title, Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, the final movement from Book Two, Italie, of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (“Years of pilgrimage”). Mr. Vanhauwaert in another spoken introduction drew attention to the use in this piece of the dissonant tritone, sometimes called “the devil in music”, and to my ears gave special emphasis to it in the work’s dramatic opening, said to represent the torments of the damned in Hell. Throughout his account of one of Liszt’s most powerful and arresting piano works, he never let up the tension across its 15+ minutes, strung between alternations of the demonic opening theme and the beatific, chorale-like second subject depicting the saved souls in Heaven. It was the perfect coping-stone to a magnificent recital. 


“First Fridays at First!”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, January 6
“Second Sundays at Two”: Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2.00pm, Sunday, January 8

Photo credit: Steven Vanhauwaert

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