Rob Kapilow presents What Makes It Great? at Merkin Concert Hall – Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (Igal Kesselman)

Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)

Rob Kapilow (host) & Igal Kesselman (piano)

Reviewed by: Fred Kirshnit

Reviewed: 1 December, 2014
Venue: Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Music Center, New York City

Igal KesselmanWhat makes “What makes it great?” great? The easy answer is its creator Rob Kapilow, a combination music historian, carnival barker, stand-up comedian and master educator. The more complex realization is that no matter how well we might know a piece of music, then we can come away realizing quite a bit more. Although it appears that Kapilow could just as easily lecture about Max Reger or Brian Ferneyhough, he knows that the most intense revelations are those that correspond to the most famous works in the literature.

The shape of Kapilow’s programs is uniform. In the first half he explores the technical and historical aspects of his subject and after intermission the work is performed, except by then it sounds all the more profound. His secret is a light touch, entertaining as well as enlightening.

Rob Kapilow. Photograph: © Peter SchaafAbout 30 years ago I invited a friend to hear a recital at Davies Hall in San Francisco. He was a jazz aficionado whose knowledge of classical music came only from his matriculation in a typical American secondary school. I prepared him a bit by mentioning that this particular pianist was often upbraided for his lack of emotion. After hearing a rather pedestrian performance of the ‘Appassionata’, which he had never experienced before, this tyro turned to me ashen-faced and exclaimed “How could anyone ever call that man unemotional!”. The composition had transcended the pococurante approach of the performer.

In his comments Kapilow analyzed this universal reaction by exposing the work’s building blocks through a series of exercises. Audience members were encouraged to remember each time that the ubiquitous D flat made its appearance in the opening dramatic movement, asked to sing collectively various passages of it, and even tasked with slapping their knees in rhythm to some rather complex patterns. They participated enthusiastically. Other topics covered included the economics of promoting Beethoven’s sheet music – the ‘Appassionata’ and the ‘Waldstein’ were not successful sellers as they were too difficult to perform at home. One of the most profound books about Beethoven is by Robert Haven Schauffler, The Man Who Freed Music. Kapilow could have employed this title as a motto for his talk. His re-composition of individual phrases into more strictly acceptable harmonic language comically and dramatically served to expose Beethoven’s genius.

Having provided musical examples in the first hour, Igal Kesselman was already familiar to us all. What was pleasantly surprising was his superb performance of the ‘Appassionata’. His attacks were strong, his articulation precise, even as he extensively (some might say excessively) employed the sustaining pedal. His middle movement theme and variations was sublime. We heard distinctly every note of the final Presto, although some of this precise listening may have been engendered by Kapilow during his pinpoint explication.

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