Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Another Concert of Two Halves


Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro plays Mozart, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, and Bach

Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro (at neither Torrance nor Rolling Hills). 

Though not spelt out as such in the advance publicity, it was easy to read the two recitals by Portuguese pianist Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro in the “First Fridays at First!” and, two days later, “Second Sundays at Two” series, as being the complementary halves of a larger whole, linked as they were by a common factor. 

The opener for the first recital, at the smaller venue of First Lutheran Church, Torrance, was Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, K. 397/385g. So vast is Mozart’s catalog of works that one could spend a lifetime exploring and still come across unfamiliar things, so I don’t mind admitting that this was the first time I’d come across this particular work. Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro conveyed a remarkable emotional range in its brief five-minute span, but I was unsurprised to find out later that Mozart never completed the work, and that the final few measures, a little glib-sounding even in this performance, were added by another hand, probably the Fantasia’s first publisher. 

There is no sense of incompleteness or uncertainty of expressive focus in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 ‘Appassionata’, the main work in the recital, nor was there in this interpretation of it. The first movement’s initial tempo marking of Allegro assai may mean “very fast” or “fast enough”, and his reading took that to be not very fast at all – a meditative account of the pianissimo opening that with the utmost contrast exploded into violence at the fortissimo upwards cascade of chords with which Beethoven makes clear the heroic, striving nature of one of his most challenging and revolutionary sonatas. 

Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s expansive, improvisatory approach, with much flexible use of rubato, continued throughout the performance, though without any self-indulgent “listen to me” pyrotechnics. He carefully characterized the four large variations that make up the middle, slow, movement, and then launched, attacca as marked, into the finale at a pretty fast lick, despite Beethoven’s ma non troppo qualification. Nonetheless, he had plenty in reserve to kick up the substantial notch needed for the final Presto at full tilt, hurtling to a tumultuous conclusion.

The final manuscript page of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.
As an encore, Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro played Alexander Siloti’s transcription (in B minor) of Bach’s Prelude in E minor BWV 855a from his 1720 compilation of keyboard music for his son Wilhelm Friedman (later reworked as Prelude No.10 in E minor BWV 855 in Book 1 of “The Well-Tempered Clavier”)… and fascinatingly, that earlier account of the piece sounded quite different from his repeat of it in the larger space of RHUMC as the curtain-raiser for Sunday’s main item, Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition. What was previously limpid and tender sounded here bold and resonant – an effect, I suspect, not only of pianistic approach but also of a different piano in another acoustic, and heard from a position facing the keyboard from the left rather than behind the body of the piano on the right. 

Mussorgsky in 1874.
Given the ubiquity in concert-halls of Ravel’s orchestration of the Pictures as a guaranteed go-to crowd-puller, it was a treat to have the comparatively rare opportunity to enjoy live the keyboard original. The impression of boldness and a touch of clangor encountered in the Bach transcription continued with a confident, even imperious, initial “Promenade”, but after abruptly encountering a particularly lumpish, hulking, and threatening “Gnomus” (No.1 in the series of 10 paintings by Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann that are imaged in the work), the spectator, in Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s cleverly stage-managed interpretation, moved on notably chastened and thoughtful in the second Promenade. 

“The Old Castle” (No.2) came across as meditative and somber rather than overtly pictorial, but that reaction might have been, as elsewhere, a carry-over from familiarity with the genius of Ravel’s orchestration (memo to self: try sometime to listen to more of the many Pictures arrangements by other composers). Again the Promenade returns, here with a determined stride as if shaking off the mood of the picture, only to be immediately arrested by the capriccioso of the “Tuileries: Children’s Quarrel after Play” (No.3). 

No Promenade between this picture and “Bydlo” (No.4), this title variously translated as “Cattle” (here) or “The Oxcart” (as for most performances of the Ravel orchestration), and bringing the first of two major differences between that and the piano original. Where Ravel creates a scenario in motion, the cart approaching from the distance, initially pianissimo, to rumble past so close you can feel the ground shake and then finally disappear into the distance, Mussorgsky writes a brutal fortissimo from the outset, which only recedes in the final dozen or so measures. 

The fourth Promenade, marked Tranquillo, became a positive tiptoe away in Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro’s hands, only to be brought up short again by the crazy Scherzino of the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” (No.5), a good deal louder here than the score’s pianissimo. Again there is no Promenade between this and No.6 “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmu├┐le” – the former weighty and commanding rather than a hulking bully, the latter shrilly protesting, not timorous, and both thereby closely following the score’s markings.

Viktor Hartmann's (unbuilt) design
for the Bogatyr Gates in Kiev.
Then comes the second striking difference from Ravel, who in his orchestral version omits entirely the fifth and final Promenade before the last four continuous pictures. The presence of this – almost identical to the first full 24-bar version (the intervening Promenades 2-4 being much truncated) – makes a fascinating difference, the work falling, to my ears, into two unequal halves, rather than essentially a multi-movement but virtually continuous whole. 

The pianist’s characterization of, successively, “Limoges, the Market (No.7), “Catacombs” (No.8), “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” (No.9), and “The Bogatyr Gates” (No.10) increased if anything in range and intensity, so that the spectacular conclusion to what is normally called “The Great Gate of Kiev” when the Ravel transcription is performed did not, for once, have me wishing I was hearing his orchestra rather than Mussorgsky’s single pianist. 

Finally came one brief encore, Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo ed Euridice, delivered by Senhor Pinto-Ribeiro with affecting delicacy. 


“First Fridays at First!”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 6, 2017.
“Second Sundays at Two”: Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2.00pm, Sunday, October 8, 2017.
Photos: Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro: Rita Carmo; Beethoven manuscript: IMSLP; Mussorgsky: Wikimedia Commons; The Bogatyr Gates: Wikimedia Commons.

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