Thursday, April 11, 2019

Friday Pianistic Adventures With Steven Vanhauwaert

Steven Vanhauwaert.


First Fridays at First!—fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The pair of Schumann Noveletten I heard in a previous South Bay recital for me seemed to rather outstay their welcome, but on rehearing the first of them—in fact the Novelette in F Major, Op. 21 No. 1—as the opening item in Steven Vanhauwaert’s fascinating program for the April First Fridays at First!—fff lunchtime concert, I was this time around more struck by the elegance of its structure, both economical and complex, than any sense of over-extendedness.

Schumann in 1839: Lithograph by Josef Kriehuber.
This might well have been due to the clarity Mr. Vanhauwaert brought to that symmetrical, seven-part shape. His playing was bold and clean-cut in the Markirt und kräftig (Emphatic and strong) opening, and then elastically rhapsodic in the “Trio” that follows after 20 measures. The opening returns in shortened form, giving way to a flowing central section that is succeeded once more by the opening, now reduced to a scant four measures. To complete the arch form, back comes the “Trio” (not now labeled as such) and lastly a full restatement of the opening. Not a measure too many.

Messiaen in 1962.
The sound-world of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is most often characterized as an expansive blend of birdsong and ecstatic religiosity, but among other musical preoccupations post-World War 2, he engaged deeply with post-Schoenbergian modernism, and serialism in particular. Mr. Vanhauwaert gave a brief and engaging outline of this “new way of organizing notes”, and proceeded to play Ile de Feu (Isle of Fire) 1, the first of the Quatre Études de rythme, composed in 1949–1950.

In the same introduction he also took in the American composer William Bolcom (b.1938), and explained how his Hymne à ‘l’amour (Hymn to Love), the last and much the longest of the Twelve New Etudes for Piano (1977–1986), (a first set of 12 Etudes had been written in 1959-1966) showed the influence of Messiaen, with whom he studied early at Paris in his career.

Playing the two pieces in close conjunction, as Mr. Vanhauwaert did, beautifully demonstrated both some common characteristics, such as the use of dissonant cluster chords, and also the great differences in mood and effect that can and do exist between such uncompromisingly modern works.

William Bolcom.
His fearless conquest of the Messiaen’s alternation between spasms of fury and islets of glacial calm, as well as the extremes of dynamic and timbre at opposite ends of the keyboard throughout its two excoriating minutes, was strikingly juxtaposed with the seemingly endless and hypnotic repetition in Bolcom's Etude of a soft and narrow-compassed eight-note walking theme (a bit like a slowed-down version of the intro to “The Twilight Zone), punctuated by little jabs and flurries of dissonance.

This was an object lesson in how doors can be opened into such apparently inaccessible music if the player has the technical skill and commitment needed, and here Steven Vanhauwaert's performances drew from the non-specialist and maybe conservative audience a warmer response than one might have dared to hope for.

Portrait photograph of Liszt, 1858,
by Franz Hanfstaengl.
Mr. Vanhauwaert’s final selections, back in familiar, central, 19th century pianistic territory, were both from the endlessly fertile pen of Franz Liszt.

The familiar Mephisto Waltz No. 1 S.515 (I wonder whether he ever plays the other three?) worked its usual seductive magic, while in the Transcendental Etude No.10 in F Minor S.139/10, "Appassionata," his combination of supernally even and clear passagework throughout, a very rhapsodic treatment of the central marcato section that almost came to a halt in places, and finally the pellucid clarity with which he untangled the thorny clusters of right-hand flourishes and left-hand chordal hammerings at the imperious conclusion,  was quite electrifying.

The audience was enraptured, and this listener for one left simply open-mouthed with admiration. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, April 5, 2019.
Images: Steven Vanhauwaert:Artist's website; Schumann: Wikimedia Commons; Messiaen: © T. Gaby, courtesy composer website; Bolcom: Courtesy Primephonic; Liszt: Wikimedia Commons.

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