Searching for Unison (Etude for Solo Piano) [Carnegie Hall commission: world premiere]
Douze études dans tous les tons mineurs, Op.39 – IV-VII: Symphony for Solo Piano
Étude retrouvée [realised Roy Howat]
Prélude, Toccata et Scherzo [US premiere]
Ralph van Raat (piano)
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 24 October, 2018
Venue: Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Ralph van Raat is quite exceptional, a much sought-after recitalist and soloist, a highly regarded musicologist and a respected teacher. The works on this program are related to the etude. Van Raat opened with Louis Andriessen. Searching for Unison is a brief exploration of his stylistic development – a montage of diatonic, serial, minimalistic material expressed in contrasting sections that range from mildly meandering to wildly explosive, rather manic-depressive in character.
Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Symphony for Solo Piano came next. Alkan (1813-1888) was a remarkably gifted pianist and an extraordinarily creative composer. A child prodigy, earning many awards at the Paris Conservatoire, in which he was enrolled at the age of six, Alkan had a wide circle of friends, including many of the noted artists of his day. Yet in his later years Alkan suddenly withdrew from society and refused offers to perform, foregoing both fame and fortune. Given his penchant for strange-sounding chord progressions that produce idiosyncratic soundscapes, Alkan was sometimes compared to Berlioz, his contemporary, for lacing his music with unexpected diversions, strange harmonies, cluster-like chords, and extraordinarily difficult pyrotechnic passages.
Written in 1857, Alkan’s Symphony contains four movements that comprise a highly unconventional example of symphonic form. Opening in a dark, foreboding mood, its principal theme has a mournful, even weepy character. Elements of early romanticism, particularly Chopinesque, are infused with demonstrative assertions contrasting with softer expressions of a melancholy disposition; rapid passages ablaze with feverish ferocity outdo Liszt in demonic character. The juxtaposition of manic fury and somber musing, as well as hyper-tense passagework, has a spellbinding effect. The second movement, a moody funeral march is permeated with minor-to-major shifts, and the Scherzo that sets off a vigorous display of rapid-fire runs with strong offbeat accents against a flowing lyrical subject. The Finale returns to the mood of the first movement in its bravura display of wild, extremely complex passages. Van Raat’s remarkable technical skills met the challenge impressively.
Claude Debussy’s Étude retrouvée (1915), as realized by Roy Howat, begins with a familiar Debussian device, rapid, fluid runs that give the impression of rippling waters. Van Raat’s reading with simply enchanting. The concert concluded with an early (1944) and unpublished work by Pierre Boulez. The influence of Olivier Messiaen is apparent, but more importantly this piece might be viewed as a gauge to how Boulez’s style was to develop. Brilliant colors, idiosyncratic rhythms and fervid intensity provide a touchstone from which Boulez was to develop stylistically. In the Prélude, rage is expressed in forceful strokes that suddenly burst forth, jagged lines that jut out with obdurate force, and pounding chords. The figuration that opens the Toccata leads to a contrasting fugal passage, generating a chaotic and devilishly difficult concluding section. Heavily accented repeating strokes open the Scherzo, which proceeds in fits and starts suffused with nervous energy. Mood-swings are extremely violent as the music intensifies to a maddening fury, ending with a sudden jolt. Van Raat gave a brilliantly executed, riveting performance of this extraordinary work, befitting of both its complexities and its savage ferocity. Although I have not been especially drawn to Boulez’s music, I must say that this work has convinced me that I should reconsider my impression.
For an encore, Van Raat combined hauntingly beautiful expression with dramatic fervor in his reading of the third movement – ‘The Alcotts’ – of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, with its pervasive references to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.